Forcing the issue

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2011, 12:00am

Often, it seems, Taiwan's fate is decided by the outside world, primarily Washington and Beijing, while the island itself has little or no say. Recently, more voices in the United States have been raised to the effect that Taiwan needs to be sacrificed for the sake of better relations with mainland China, which is rising steadily to superpower status.

Charles Glaser, a political scientist at George Washington University, suggests in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine that China's rise may not lead to conflict if the US were to make some 'territorial concessions', such as turning Taiwan over to Beijing - as if the 23 million people on the island do not matter.

And Glaser's is by no means the only such voice. Even US Defence Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged in January that the US commitment to Taiwan could be re-examined if 'the security environment for Taiwan changed'. Such remarks worry Taiwan, where there is little interest in unification.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act, Washington is required to provide Taiwan with arms to prevent its forcible takeover by Beijing. True, in 1982, the US pledged to gradually reduce weapons sales to Taiwan. But president Ronald Reagan also gave Taiwan 'six assurances' that the American commitment continued.

As China's international stature grows, it is making the US pay a higher price for selling arms. Last year, for the first time, Beijing threatened to punish American companies that manufacture equipment sold to Taiwan. Concern that the US may not be willing to offend a rising China is spreading, within both Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang and opposition Democratic Progressive Partyas well as the international business community.

The US-Taiwan Business Council issued a statement on March 1 in which it asked: 'Is America meeting its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taiwan with the military resources it needs?' 'The answer,' it said, 'is no.'

Though President Ma Ying-jeou has eased cross-strait tension and improved economic relations, he also wants to upgrade Taiwan's defences in an attempt to slightly redress the balance, which has long shifted in the mainland's favour, and has asked repeatedly for advanced F16 fighter jets. But the US is reluctant to sell for fear of provoking Beijing.

So concerned was Ma that when Raymond Burghardt, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, arrived to brief him on President Hu Jintao's state visit to the US, Ma took out Reagan's six assurances and read them out loud, one by one, beginning with 'The United States would not set a date for ending arms sales to the Republic of China', and ending with 'The United States would not pressure Taiwan to enter into negotiations with the People's Republic of China'.

Such behaviour was unprecedented. Ma clearly felt at the end of his rope and wanted to remind Washington of its promises.

Tsai Ing-wen, the opposition party leader, has announced her intention to contest the presidential election next year, when Ma is expected to seek a second term.

Cross-strait relations will be the focus of the campaign, and Ma will be vulnerable, having to defend his policy of closer relations with the mainland while Beijing continues to threaten Taiwan's very existence with over 1,000 missiles targeted at the island.

Beijing would be wise to use its head more and its muscles less. It should lessen the pressure on Taiwan by dismantling the missiles. Pressuring Taiwan to reunify while pressuring the US not to sell arms only increases anti-Beijing sentiment on Taiwan and decreases the likelihood of a peaceful resolution.

However, if it reduces the military threat, Taiwan will become less fearful and less likely to demand sophisticated American weapons. A more confident Taiwan is in Beijing's interests, not one that is fearful and irrational. Otherwise, Beijing is creating pressures that will result in an explosion - and likely turmoil within Taiwan - which is unlikely to be in China's interest.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1