For the last 4 years, the Bush administration has continually begged Taiwan to purchase a special $18 billion package of weapons designed to help defend against the threat from China. Due mostly to relentless obstructionism on the part of the opposition pan-Blue coalition, Taiwan has failed to pass this special budget. If the United States fails to seriously pressure Taiwan — in the form of diplomatic “sticks” — Taiwan will continue to balk, emboldening China and endangering the security of both Taiwan and the United States.
Taiwan faces arguably the most precarious security environment in the world. It sits roughly 100 miles away from the behemoth People’s Republic of China, which is aiming a considerable campaign of military modernization directly at tiny Taiwan. In the face of this dire threat, Taiwan has displayed a stunning neglect of its own defense, and not just in terms of its refusal to pass the special budget. Over the last five years, Taiwan’s overall defense spending has dropped roughly 25 percent, to an anemic 2.4 percent of gross domestic product.
The reason it has the luxury to do so, according to Taiwan expert James Mulvenon, is Taiwan’s belief in a “blank check of military support from the United States.”
Unfortunately, the Bush administration has not convinced Taiwan it does not have a blank check from the United States. By refusing to put adequate force behind the negotiations over the special budget, the administration has conveyed it is prepared to endure indefinite Taiwanese procrastination. Without more serious U.S. pressure, Taiwan’s government may continue to de-emphasizing defense spending, even as it greatly increases its social spending.
The administration seems to be turning up the heat. Edward Ross, a senior Pentagon official, gave Taiwan a stern warning last week. Mr. Ross told Taiwanese defense officials at a meeting in San Diego that, “We cannot help defend you if you cannot defend yourself.” While that was a helpful measure, there are a number of additional tactics the administration could use if Taiwan continues to refuse the special budget.
For example, in April 2001 President Bush promised to do “whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself.” What the Taiwanese seem to have heard was “whatever it takes to defend Taiwan.” The president should clarify what his remarks meant in the context of the stalled special budget.
The ultimate danger is that Taiwan’s military may become increasingly irrelevant. Throughout the 1990s, Taiwan made serious efforts to maintain its own robust, modern deterrent force — including fighter aircraft, naval vessels, and other measures designed to make a Chinese attempt at retaking Taiwan prohibitively costly. By contrast, Taiwan’s current approach emphasizes prospective U.S. military action, rather than bolstering its own capacity to repel a Chinese attack.
Oddly, this approach has developed a curious group of supporters in the United States. Neoconservative analysts Gary Schmitt and Dan Blumenthal recently penned a lengthy apologia for Taiwan’s defense spending in the Asian Wall Street Journal. Their colleague, Thomas Donnelly, protested during a recent hearing of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission that Taiwan spends more on defense per capita than does U.S. ally Germany. At the same time, these analysts advocate very provocative measures, such as sending senior U.S. officers to Taiwan to coordinate with Taiwan’s military — a move that would be sure to infuriate Beijing.
Such thinking is dangerously misguided. Implying Taiwan’s inaction is acceptable, or comparing Taiwan’s situation to that of Germany — a country facing no significant security threat — only encourages Taiwan’s lack of seriousness about its own defense. The United States is bound by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to continue selling defensive arms to Taiwan, and it should continue doing so. But if Taiwan cannot reach a consensus on the nature of the Chinese threat, the Bush administration may want to point out — as Rep. Rob Simmons, Connecticut Republican, did recently — that blocking the special budget “tells the United States… that Taiwan’s leadership is not serious about the security of its people or its freedom.” Such language may help move things along.
And Taiwan should not believe potential U.S. action would be a panacea, if a war erupts in the Taiwan Strait. Chinese doctrine on Taiwan recognizes the risk of U.S. intervention. As a result, it is based around the prospect of decapitating the Taiwanese regime and presenting an arriving U.S. force with a fait accompli: Would the U.S. want to attack a Chinese-held Taiwan in hopes of defeating the Chinese and reinstalling a Taiwanese government? In such a case, far-off U.S. security guarantees would be little consolation to a largely defenseless Taiwan. The island needs to take the lead in defending itself.
Justin Logan is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.