Tensions in Asia still include Taiwan
A new report indicates that China may increase the missiles it has deployed against Taiwan from 1,600 to 1,900 by year's end, a sign of continuing tensions stemming from Beijing's goal of capturing the island.
While Americans were celebrating their independence over the 4th of July weekend, the Chinese were conducting "live fire" naval drills in the East China Sea. In past years, such an exercise would have been seen as pressure against the independence of Taiwan, the island democracy just south of the drills which Beijing considers a renegade province. This year, the exercise was directed northward in an attempt to deter planned joint U.S. South Korean maneuvers from entering the Yellow Sea. But Beijing's actions should be seen as linking the security of Taiwan and South Korea, not as separate issues.
On the surface, relations between China and Taiwan seem to have improved since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou in 2008. There are now direct air flights between the island and the mainland, and Chinese tourist groups are allowed to visit Taiwan, which they are doing in large number. The centerpiece of Ma's program is the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed with Beijing which expands trade and investment with the mainland. But Ma is under heavy domestic pressure about this agreement because of fear that it will lead to a degree of economic integration and dependency on the mainland that will undermine Taiwan's independent self-rule.
In May, I attended a presidential press conference where Ma swore he would never negotiate on the issue of unification with the mainland. Taiwan needs to trade with China, but there is no common ground for political talks he said. ECFA is not even a true "free trade" pact as China will not be allowed to send workers to Taiwan, invest there, or export agricultural products to the island. The pledge to avoid any unification talks was repeated by Government Information Office Minister Johnny C. Chiang at a National Press Club luncheon in Washington I attended last week.
Beijing, however, does see ECFA as a stepping stone towards a takeover of the island. Thus, the people of Taiwan, and Americans concerned with security in Asia, need to keep alert. It must be remembered that there is no constituency in Taiwan that wants to live under the Beijing's communist dictatorship. Polls consistently show less than 10 percent of Taiwanese favor unification. People do not voluntarily give up their freedom. All the political agitation in Taipei is from those who fear moving closer to China.
Indeed, Taiwan continues to improve it military defenses. The day before Ma's mid-term press conference, news broke about a new class of stealth missile boats coming into service. Briefings at the Foreign Ministry and the Mainland Affairs Council discussed the continuing threat from Beijing. President Ma is reported drafting a new U.S. shopping list including MK-54 torpedoes and dozens of M1A2 Abrams tanks.
Unfortunately, the United States has not agreed to sell Taiwan all the military equipment is has requested. In January, President Barack Obama fulfilled President George W. Bush's commitment to sell Patriot anti-missile systems and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters worth about $6.4 billion. What was left out of the deal is what Taiwan needs most, 50 F-16C/D tactical fighters to meet the rising challenge of improved jets coming into service on the mainland.
Minister Chiang repeated this request last week. The Obama administration seems to have been deterred from acting by strong Chinese protests, which brings the discussion back to the naval maneuvers taking place in Northeast Asia. Beijing's vehement opposition to any deployment of a U.S. carrier group into the Yellow Sea seems to have scared the White House into keeping major fleet units on the east side of the Korean peninsula in the Sea of Japan.
For Washington to be seen as falling back from providing support to both Taiwan and South Korea in the face of Chinese pressure undermines deterrence throughout the region. It is Beijing that should be deterred from provocative acts by resolute and unambiguous U.S. behavior that maintains a favorable balance of power in support of America's democratic friends and allies. Washington should provide the front line states of Asia with the equipment they need to defend themselves, and then be prepared to back them up with powerful forces of its own in a crisis.
It is called "peace through strength" and works much better than appeasement.