The United States is required by law to go to war to defend Taiwan if communist China invades — an alliance that conjures up visions of a close working relationship between the democratic nation and the Pentagon.
But Washington in fact exercises a lukewarm policy toward Taipei so as not to offend Beijing, which refuses to recognize the Republic of China and has long-standing ambitions to forcibly absorb the island 100 miles away. The U.S. standoffishness comes down to the basics: It discourages Taiwanese military personnel from wearing their uniforms while visiting the U.S.
Sen. Daniel Coats, Indiana Republican, is attempting to lift that dress code restriction with an amendment to the 2017 defense budget bill that will be debated on the Senate floor in June.
Debating the Coats bill is one of several steps Congress is taking to force President Obama and future administrations to reshape military-to-military relations with Taiwan as an open partner while an increasingly aggressive China is building up forces along the Taiwan Strait and is attempting to seize the international South China Sea and dominate its neighbors.
Both the House and Senate defense bills contain language that would elevate Taiwan from a second-class to a first-class ally. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act is the law that requires the U.S. to come to Taiwan’s defense with arms and “services,” which analysts interpret as a requirement to fight China.
“Our defense policies with respect to Taiwan are over 37 years old,” said Claude Chafin, communications director for the House Armed Services Committee. “There have been significant developments in the Asia-Pacific landscape since the Taiwan Relations Act passed in 1979. The time is ripe to re-look at those policies, to encourage greater security cooperation and engagement with Taiwan’s military in areas of mutual security interest, and to continue to meet our commitment to enabling Taiwan maintains a sufficient self-defense capability.”
Richard Fisher, a longtime China watcher and an analyst at the nonprofit International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the act is clear on requiring the U.S. to arm the island. But it does not mention military-to-military contacts that would greatly enhance the alliance.
“Congress is opening new doors by stipulating that Taiwan-U.S. military contacts cover specific areas of concern and allow Taiwan forces to participate in actual exercises with U.S. forces,” Mr. Fisher said. “It is one thing to sell weapons to Taiwan, but it is just as important that the U.S. transfer knowledge and methods to enable victory with those weapons. This element has been missing in U.S.-Taiwan military relations.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s budget bill would order Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to create direct relations between senior U.S. military officers and their Taiwanese counterpoints.
The proposed law spells out the specific topics: threat analysis, military doctrine, force planning, logistical support, intelligence collection, operational tactics and disaster relief. Such exercises, briefings and meetings are to be carried out in both countries.
A second measure, called a “sense of the Senate,” urges the administration to let Taiwanese pilots participate in advanced aerial combat training alongside the U.S. Air Force. The U.S. does allow some joint training with Taiwan on a low-key basis.
“If approved by the president, this would constitute the most substantive congressionally mandated enhancement to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act,” Mr. Fisher said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, has made Taiwan’s security a top priority and plans to visit new President Tsai Ing-wen in early June.
Mr. McCain said in a congratulatory statement to Ms. Tsai that Washington now needs an agenda to better connect Taiwan to the Asia-Pacific economies.
“We must also work to enhance Taiwan’s security space by assisting the development of new doctrine, training, and capabilities that will bolster cross-strait deterrence,” he said. “Finally, we must continue to bestow a level of diplomatic support to the people and government of Taiwan that is commensurate with their status as a free and open member of the democratic community.”
The House bill points out another restriction in U.S.-Taiwan ties: Taiwanese warships may not visit U.S. Navy ports.
It directs the secretary of the Navy to provide a briefing by Feb. 1 on the feasibility of Taiwanese sailors visiting U.S. ports in the Pacific during the country’s Midshipman Cruising and Training Squadron, the only long-distance at-sea indoctrination for officers.
“The committee notes that the United States and Taiwan routinely conduct bilateral and multilateral training exercises and recognizes the potential theater security cooperation benefits associated with increased engagement through Taiwanese port visits,” the report said.
On Mr. Coats’ uniform amendment, a Senate aide said visiting Taiwanese military officers must remain in civilian clothes while stateside, including ground combat training during which they wear sweatsuits.
“Even when they are in the United States training at our schools, they are not supposed to wear their uniforms,” said Larry Wortzel, a China scholar who was a defense attache in Beijing on two tours in the late 1980s and mid-1990s. “I don’t know why we go as far as we do to placate the People’s Republic of China.”
Few mainland Chinese officers study here, he said, so the chances of them coming across a Taiwanese officer in uniform and being offended are slim.
“There should be enough flexibility that the commanders of local institutions of the services can use some judgment,” Mr. Wortzel said. “You don’t need to do it every day. Just give the people the dignity that, if it’s a graduation day, there are no Chinese there from the PRC. Let them dress like they want.”
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Taiwan’s representative office in Washington.
The Pentagon this month released its annual report on China’s growing military power. It should not be reassuring to Taiwan.
The report contains this sentence: “As China modernizes the [People’s Liberation Army] and prepares for various contingencies, it continues to develop capabilities that serve to dissuade, deter, or if ordered, defeat possible third-party intervention during a large-scale, theater campaign such as a Taiwan contingency.”
In other words, China continues to plan for an invasion of Taiwan and for defeating U.S. forces who come to the rescue.
The report adds: “China’s military modernization plan includes the development of capabilities to attack, at long ranges, adversary forces that might deploy or operate within the western Pacific Ocean in the air, maritime, space, electromagnetic, and information domains.”
Said Mr. Fisher: “By the early 2020s China will have an initial capability to actually invade Taiwan, or conduct an amphibious invasion on the scale of D-Day. There are many capabilities and methods that Taiwan requires in order to continue to deter China, and the Congress is doing its part to ease that task.”
All administrations since 1979 have faced a balancing act: Washington follows a “one China” policy but by law must support Taiwan diplomatically and militarily.
In December, the Obama administration approved the first arms shipments to Taiwan in four years. The $1.8 billion package includes two older U.S. Navy guided missile frigates and anti-aircraft and anti-ship weapons systems. The Oliver Hazard Perry-class ships were decommissioned in 2005, with some reserved for allies.
Beijing is a military giant, with a 1.25 million ground force across the strait from Taiwan’s 130,000 ground troops. China commands 1,700 fighter aircraft; Taiwan, 384.
Taiwan has sought new F-16 fighters to modernize its aging fleet of 150 Falcons. But the Obama administration in 2011 rejected the request and embarked on the alternative of selling components to extend the existing jets’ performance.
Mr. Wortzel said the arms imbalance is why Congress’ proposed military-to-military contacts are so important.
“The objectives ought to be to improve Taiwan’s operational capabilities and defense capabilities and, if necessary, interoperability with the United States,” he said. “What I don’t think we need to do is be extremely visible when we do this. In other words, there is no need to use it as a stick to poke in a Chinese eye. The objective ought to be to ensure we can operate with Taiwan if we need to and they can defend themselves if they need to.”