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Talking straight with US paramount
Paul Lin

In an interview with the US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on Dec. 10, US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage caused strong concern in Taiwan by saying that the island is "probably the biggest landmine" in Washington's ties with Beijing. But this view is not important. What matters is the fact that Taiwan is an unsinkable aircraft carrier, whose strategic significance is shown when it comes to whether it is independent, what country it belongs to or leans toward.

According to Armitage, if China really attacks Taiwan by force, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) requires the US to maintain sufficient force in the Pacific to be able to deter attack, but it does not require it to defend the island, adding that the power to declare war rests with Congress. In fact, the TRA does say this, and this has been Washington's long-term "policy of ambiguity."

The core of Armitage's unfriendly remarks was: "we all agree that there is but one China, and Taiwan is part of China." This is a continuance of the remarks made by US Secretary of State Colin Powell during his visit to Beijing in October, who said that "there is only one China. Taiwan is not independent. It does not enjoy sovereignty as a nation."

Their words were neither slips of the tongue nor gifts for China before their retirement. This is because the US' cross-strait policy is leaning toward China. But the above remarks contradict the Sino-US Joint Communique, signed in 1972 in Shanghai, which states that the US merely "acknowledges," instead of "agrees," that there is but one China [and Taiwan is part of China]. Nor do they tally with Taiwan's status as defined in the TRA. Obviously, the US is pressuring Taiwan due to worries that it is rapidly heading toward independence.

While the US is pressuring Taiwan, we also see its growing military deployment specifically targeting China, gradually taking it as a dangerous enemy. This phenomenon can be shown as follows:

The US has already stationed about 300,000 soldiers from its four services -- including the Marines -- across the Pacific region. Moreover, in light of the speedy nature of modern warfare today, the US Pacific Command headquarters confirmed in late December that the Joint Task Force (JTF)-519 was formed about five years ago to improve its military mobility in the Taiwan Strait. Washington is apparently warning Beijing by revealing the information at this moment.

Next, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) announced that the US will station an active-duty military officer there for the first time since 1979, when it severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Washington said the reason was to improve administrative efficiency. The efficiency of an active-duty officer is certainly much better than that of a retired one. Washington has sensed that the cross-strait crisis is worse than ever. This has not only a diplomatic meaning, but also a strategic one.

The US recently warned the EU again not to remove its weapons embargo against China, or it will stop providing military technology to the union. Washington clearly and definitely pointed out that a lifting of the ban would endanger Taiwan. It also demanded that Israel keep its promise not to help China upgrade its attack ballistic missiles. Before this, it successfully stopped Israel from selling early-warning aircraft to China.

The Japanese media reported that, for the very first time, the US and Japan have agreed to take up China's military movement as a key issue in the two countries' ministerial-level security talks. US experts also pointed out that if Taiwan is occupied by China, it will be a significant blow to US-Japan security cooperation. Furthermore, some South Korean parliament members revealed that US troops stationed in their country will take necessary military action if tensions between China and Taiwan rise.

These examples all show that the US is dealing seriously with China's military threat against Taiwan, because both Washington and Taipei share the same fundamental interests. The problem is, Washington has not got itself out of the war in Iraq, so Taipei needs to understand the situation and cooperate strategically. On the other hand, Washington is unlikely to lean significantly toward Beijing, as it may not have sufficient grounds to pull away in the future, not to mention that a catastrophe may occur if it gives Beijing a wrong impression.

It should be very easy for Taiwan and the US to communicate with each other. After the new US administration is formed, Taipei has to send appropriate envoys who are not only trusted by Washington but also capable of expressing the island's true intention. It should bluntly tell Washington its thinking and bottom line in order to resolve unfavorable US policies, and stop misunderstandings that China can take advantage of.

Paul Lin is a political commentator based in New York.

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