Is Obama’s Taiwan Policy Consistent?

Randy Shriver, assistant secretary of state for East Asia from 2003 to 2005 under the Bush jr administration, worries that Washington may not understand that only the approach of supplying Taiwan with weapons for self-defense had given the country’s leaders the confidence it had taken to go to the negotiating table with Beijing. The approach had paid off, Schriver writes – “see ECFA and other recent developments”. President Ma Ying-jeou, on the other hand, understands this very well and has consistently asked the U.S. to make more modern weapons available to Taiwan.

Shriver voiced his concerns in an article for the conservative Washington Times on July 9. And he is careful not to accuse the Obama administration outright of letting Taiwan down. But apparently, he has no time to pay  attention to local or regional subtleties – not when it comes to politics, anyway.

A visit by the Dalai Lama to Taiwan in August 2009 turned into a walk on eggshells for the Taiwanese government – the visit was eventually approved, but one of the Ma government’s – semi-official – negotiators, Strait Exchange Foundation Vice-Chairman and Secretary-General Kao Kung-lian (高孔廉) apparently suggested that a the statement [by the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office concerning the Dalai Lama’s visit] didn’t accuse president Ma or the KMT at all, one could understand the mainland position, as its stance concerning “the Dalai” had always been this way (可以理解大陸的立場,因為大陸對達賴的看法一向如此).  Several referrals to the DPP in the statement suggested that Kao Kung-lian saw a Chinese acknowledgment that the invitation to the Dalai Lama to visit Taiwan was just an action by the oppositional DPP (i.e. the bad guys in Taiwan who were trying to sabotage the beautiful honeymoon between Taipei and Beijing).

Frequently since 2008, president Ma’s KMT has appeared to position itself closer to Beijing than to its own people – unless their own people supported the government’s China policies. When oppositionals prepared for a rally against ECFA, KMT lawmakers accused them of “political motives” – just as if Beijing’s approach to the ECFA negotiations was unpolitical. A referendum on ECFA was – more or less elegantly – buried by the relevant review committee early in June, and the ruling KMT kept the review process of ECFA in parliament as lean as possible.

America’s interest in Pacific affairs is hardly fading. It’s latest military moves East of China don’t suggest that at all – moves which may as well be interpreted as an American – and a Japanese – preference for taking care of the regional status quo by themselves, rather than relying on a Taiwanese government that looks anything but confident.

“The U.S. has always set a policy based on singling-out a potential rival, a country that may pose a danger to America from the standpoint of its overall resources”, the Voice of Russia quotes Alexei Fenenko, Associate Professor of Moscow State University, who explains why, in his view, the U.S. has suddenly started offering India broader cooperation in areas where Russia and India have long had strong ties, after 30 years of disregarding the country and refusing to supply advance peaceful nuclear technology. Fenenko adds that

“The strategy of containing China declared by the Clinton Administration and searching a counter balance to China is based on this. Originally, the U.S. tried to use Australia for this purpose but when it became clear that it is a weak player, Washington turned towards India in 2005 considering it as a counterbalance to China and offered to promote cooperation.”

If Australia, a country whose political independence is undisputed, should indeed be seen as a “weak player”, how weak is the Ma administration looking? Does it make sense to provide Taiwan’s administration the weapons it has asked for? The answer may still have to be “Yes” – but this doesn’t go without saying.

Party politics can blind people. It may be unconceivable for Shriver that Barack Obama‘s administration may actually have a clear picture of China’s military build-up against Taiwan. It may be hard for a conservative former politician to understand that the current administration may actually be  continuing a policy started by another  Democrat – Bill Clinton.

Shriver’s role in international business doesn’t necessarily help to assess China and Taiwan in a political light either – his merits in promoting U.S.-Taiwan relations notwithstanding.


Zhao Nianyu’s Three Taiwan Commandments, June 19, 2010
Tibet: “America’s Consistent Policy”, March 26, 2010

8 Responses to “Is Obama’s Taiwan Policy Consistent?”

  1. “It may be unconceivable for Shriver that Barack Obama‘s administration may actually have a clear picture of China’s military build-up against Taiwan.”

    Maybe. But then again, it is no less possible that Obama does not see Taiwan as a priority. Note that Shriver’s article does not accuse the Obama administration of anything. It looks as though he is expressing his concern based on the lack of action on or acknowledgement of recent arms requests. Taiwan’s air force badly needs an upgrade. Taiwan could really use some light submarines. Taiwan could use a lot of things. Meanwhile, Obama is under pressure from the Chinese (Diane Feinstein is just one face of a wider campaign) to terminate or indefinitely suspend arms sales.

    I might have more faith in Obama if the last weapons package that went through had been approved under his term. His administration was merely making good on promises extended under the Bush Administration. The Obama Administration has given no indication yet that it does take the defense of Taiwan seriously. The positioning of Tomahawk-endowed subs in the region alone is proof of nothing.

    Meanwhile, Obama has shown that he is willing to soft-pedal on other issues related to China. Declaration of the manipulation of the RMB is continually deferred, human rights are continually downplayed, and support for companies that are suffering unequal treatment in China is present but anemic.

    Shriver may not be seeing things clearly. But he may also be right. This should be acknowledged.


  2. I’d say a phrasing like
    “But does Washington understand this? Either through willful misdirection (some in the U.S. recently advocated reduced sales to Taiwan because they ‘believe’ China is pulling back), or through naivete (others believe China will soon reduce the threat to Taiwan, so the U.S. shouldn’t incite China with further arms sales), the Obama administration appears to be on the verge of altering an approach to Taiwan and to the Asia-Pacific region as a whole that has served our interests well”
    sounds quite accusing. So I don’t think that I have wronged Shriver. What I pointed out that Obama may be right after all.

    As for the arms packages, do you believe the US have, in the past, put Taiwan’s interest first, and their own interest next? It is natural to supply weapons to an ally when you can be sure that political talks with China are out of the question – it’s a different story when this is not so sure. And then they might keep the decision about defending Taiwan to themselves, just as well. Especially when supplies go to an unsecure ally, and at the same time make cooperation with a permanent UN security council government harder.

    Obviously, a lot of other stuff may be happening. Maybe the Ma government is involved in one or another decision by outside governments behind the scenes, such as about Japan’s Air Defense Identification Zone extension (and on whatever account with America).
    But this would be a big “maybe”.


  3. My point was that Shriver did not say that he was sure this was the case. If we are operating under the assumption that an implication equals an accusation, the following comment does indeed indicate that you are wronging Shriver:

    “Shriver’s role in international business doesn’t necessarily help to assess China and Taiwan in a political light either – his merits in promoting U.S.-Taiwan relations notwithstanding.”

    As for the US’ motivation in supplying arms, it is no less natural to supply arms to give your ally a better position from which to negotiate. This is especially the case when your ally is threatened militarily and is located in a strategically important area. Shriver is implying that Obama’s judgement seems to be lacking in not supporting Taiwan more firmly.

    I have a problem with your thread because I don’t believe you have adequately dispelled the Shriver’s argument. Look, neither you nor I know what Obama knows. Shriver might be in a better position. Of course, he may still be mistaken. I sincerely hope that he is not.

    It seems to me that you are presenting your criticism as the she said against the he said. She might be right. She might be wrong. Therefore, most people won’t pay attention to her argument, unless she can come up with a more concrete basis for her accusation/implication.


  4. One of my points is that recent moves by America and Japan don’t suggest that either government is particular naive about the Chinese military buildup.

    Another is that it a decade-old American tradition that Republicans accuse Democrats of a lack of resolve in dealing with potential or immediate threats – this isn’t meant to be merely about Taiwan. It is about how local matters can be left out of the account in a domestic debate about a foreign country. The earliest such case I have read myself is an article by Richard Nixon where he wrote some “conclusions” from the Kennedy administration’s bay of pigs disaster – basically, that when America says something, it must back the said up with military might. But this was a preparation for his own candidacy, rather than Cuban issues. Ever since (or even earlier), Dem government’s “weakness” towards foreign powers has been a mantra, through the 1980s, 1990s, and this past decade. Party politics, in short.

    As for business interests coming before political interests, I believe this is something I can stand by. To clarify this, I’m not suspecting that Shriver wants to promote arms deals with Taiwan for economical reasons. I’m referring to his warm words for ECFA and for the Ma government. Business usually doesn’t look after politics, unless it is about the framework politics provide for business. To me, it didn’t look like if American arms supplies really strengthened the Ma government’s position. And watching how ECFA is whipped through the negotiation and the review processes, plus some previous violations of rule of law, the current KMT government doesn’t look reliable to me.


  5. “To me, it didn’t look like if American arms supplies really strengthened the Ma government’s position.”

    I think the dilemma here is that there is a disconnect between what the Americans would like and what Ma is prepared to give. My comment about using arms to strengthen the hand of the negotiator assumes that the negotiator has the intention of getting the best deal possible and is using the ability to mount a defense as a bargaining chip. I would argue that the negotiators probably could have gotten a better deal, using Taiwan’s ability to defend itself as such a chip. But I think the Ma administration’s goal in signing the ECFA is to woo Taiwanese rather than get the most out of Beijing. You can woo people through token gestures. Getting a real concession from your adversary is much more difficult.

    And I accept your comment about the use of accusations for gaining political advantages. However, the fact that politicians on both sides of the aisle make such accusations all the time does not mean that all accusations against Democratic president raised by the oppostion fail to hold water. Shriver’s piece seemed right on the money to me when I read it, and I don’t consider myself to be a supporter of either party.

    This said, I admit that I could be wrong. Based on my interpretation of the situation, I think that Obama may be aware of the situation but has other priorities at the moment. This could lead him to neglect the situation in question. In this sense, my thinking is close to Shriver’s.

    But it is important to acknowledge that, since neither of us has a direct line to the president, we are both arriving at our conclusions based on the degree of our faith in Obama’s judgement. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s air force keeps aging…


  6. Taiwan Link took a close look at a Taipei Times article on Shriver’s original Washington Times article a few days ago.
    It’s a very practial one, I think, and I particularly like the blog’s advice at the end of the post:
    If the F-16 issue isn’t resolved by the end of this issue, the ROC Air Force (ROCAF), Ministry of National Defense (MND), and the Ma administration would be well-advised to submit a letter of request (LOR) for price and availability (P&A) data for 66 F-35B fighters to the Obama administration. And send a copy to the key staffers on the Hill to make sure they know that an LOR has been submitted.



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