Once again, Congress is asserting its leadership role in guiding policies that defend the island nation of Taiwan from its communist neighbor, the People's Republic of China (PRC).
On May 26, 45 U.S. senators (31 Republicans, 13 Democrats and 1 independent) called on President Obama to sell Taiwan much-needed new Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters and upgrades for its 145 early model F-16s.
Such support is not surprising, even given China's rapidly growing clout on Capitol Hill. For decades, Congress has played a dominant role in American policy toward Taiwan, to the consternation of many presidents. Recently declassified papers show President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger expected that Taiwan would soon be absorbed by China after Washington and Beijing normalized relations. Congressional concern for the island was so strong that soon after normalization in December 1978, President Carter could not stop Congress from passing the first law to govern the president's conduct of foreign policy, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
Congress' foresight has proved invaluable. While China is still run by a totalitarian Communist Party, Taiwan has become a stunning example of democratic evolution for the 1.3 billion citizens of China. Public opinion polls regularly show that 80 percent to 90 percent of Taiwanese people have no desire to surrender their freedom and submit to Chinese control even though China is now Taiwan's largest trading partner and there has been unprecedented progress in political relations since the Kuomintang government of Ma Ying-jeou was elected in 2008.
But here's the rub: Even though the vast majority of Taiwanese citizens would rather remain free while doing business with China, every Chinese leader since Mao Zedong has coveted this island about 100 miles from its coast, both for its strategic position astride Asia's main sea lanes and because a competing democratic government in Taipei undermines the legitimacy of the Communist Party dictatorship. Although Mao's successor, Deng Xiaoping, made economic growth his first priority during the 1980s, this was met by peaceful demand for democratic growth by the new generation in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Deng and his successors rejected all forces that would undermine the Communist Party's dictatorship.
A free Taiwan can choose to delay any formal association with China until it evolves out of communism, so the Communist Party wants to force what it calls "reunification" with Taiwan. (Historically, China has only exercised brief control over the island.) Because the PRC can't convince the Taiwanese people to surrender their freedom, it has resorted to the most aggressive military buildup since the end of the Cold War. China aims almost 1,800 ballistic and cruise missiles and close to 600 modern fourth-generation (and soon, fourth-plus-generation fighters) at Taiwan. It hopes to prove that it can devastate Taiwan's 300 or so modern defensive fighter planes, making the island vulnerable to naval blockade and invasion. A demoralized leadership unable to defend itself is more likely to accede to "peace agreements" that will set the stage for greater communist control over the island.
Starting in 2006, Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party-led government and its Kuomintang successor have sought 60 to 70 new F-16 fighters to be able to introduce new fighter technologies and replace obsolete aircraft. New F-16s could include active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar that could confer a real advantage, which is needed simply to keep pace with new AESA radar-equipped versions of China's J-10 and J-11 fighters.
While Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have sold Taiwan some critical arms, they have delayed their decision on new F-16s, as Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates indicated Thursday in Singapore, out of consideration of "China's sensitivities." China has long learned how to mobilize the U.S. business community to press its desires on Capitol Hill. Despite the fact that Taiwan poses no military threat to China, its leaders make ending arms sales to Taiwan their first request in any encounter.
However, holding back on even this one arms sale sets a bad precedent and is not going to work. Taiwan's security will diminish below the threshold required by Congress in the Taiwan Relations Act, and U.S. restraint will not lead to military restraint by China. China is determined to drive American power from the Western Pacific; defeating Taiwan is a prerequisite. Hence, deterring war across the Taiwan Strait remains a crucial American interest in Asia. A "loss" of Taiwan will be viewed regionally and globally as an American defeat. It will upend the strategic balance and accelerate conventional and nuclear arms programs already under way in the region. Such instability only favors Beijing's Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army, which can exploit myriad new fears to sustain the dictatorship.
Americans are very fortunate that 45 senators have stepped forward to demand that the president honor the law as set forth in the Taiwan Relations Act and thereby defend the United States' longstanding interest in peace by providing Taiwan with the means to deter war and preserve its freedom.
Richard D. Fisher Jr. is a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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