Eastern Fronts

May 16, 2005 • Commentary
This article originally appeared on American Prospect Online on May 16, 2005.

While Bush administration officials are obsessed with politics in the Greater Middle East, two dangerous problems are emerging in East Asia: the Taiwan Strait and the 38th Parallel in Korea. The governments of both Taiwan and South Korea have been acting in an increasingly irresponsible manner, in part because of the Bush administration’s policy vacuum. Both states are able to act unchecked by their American patron, which works to their political benefit but to the potential peril of the United States.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s aggressive politics of seeking formal independence has been coupled with a sharp decrease in defense spending. Chen has long been a supporter of Taiwan’s formal independence, leading chants on the 2000 campaign trail of his party’s slogan, “Long live Taiwan independence!” Chen and other officials of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party publicly refer to Taiwan as an “independent country” and to China as an “enemy state.” His government has sought to promote a separate Taiwanese identity in a multitude of ways.

Even though Chen’s course is risky, Taiwan’s defense budget has shrunk to less than $7 billion annually, while the People’s Republic of China (PRC) expanded its defense budget to between $50 billion and $70 billion last year. Although the PRC has some catching up to do, it will likely surmount Taiwan’s existing qualitative advantage over the next few years. An arms package from the United States of roughly $15 billion is lying fallow in Taiwan’s legislature. Taiwan has been able to balk on the arms deal primarily because many Taiwanese believe that Taiwan has a security guarantee from the United States. (If it does, why should Taiwan bother spending for its own defense?)

The question of a security guarantee is a serious one, and deserves further exploration. Is the United States legally bound to fight for Taiwan’s security?

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (TRA) is often cited as evidence that America is obligated to defend Taiwan, come what may. But the TRA is ambiguous. It merely asserts that “efforts to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, would be a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” Moreover, the TRA replaced an expiring mutual defense treaty (MDT) with Taiwan’s government, and a debate ensued around the enactment of the TRA as to whether it should replicate the MDT’s security guarantee. A proposal offered in the U.S. House of Representatives to incorporate such a guarantee was rejected by a margin of 221 to 149.

To be fair, though, it is not totally unreasonable for the Taiwanese to believe that the United States will defend Taiwan’s right to pursue independence. Various members (past and present) of the Bush national‐​security team have sent Taiwan an array of encouraging signals regarding U.S. views on Taiwan independence.

For example, Dan Blumenthal, formerly the country director for China and Taiwan at the Pentagon, declared in a January 2005 National Review Online article that “it is most definitely not the position of the U.S. that Taiwan is part of China.” John Bolton, nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, glibly waved off the Chinese in The Weekly Standard in 1999. “The notion,” he wrote, “that China would actually respond with force [to U.S. recognition of Taiwan] is a fantasy … .” Given comments like these from administration officials, one could forgive the Taiwanese for believing they have free rein to do what they please under a U.S. security umbrella.

China seems increasingly impatient with Chen. The recent anti‐​secession law not only commits China to preventing an open declaration of independence, it notes that China will also use “non‐​peaceful means and other necessary measures” even if “possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted.” Given the trends on Taiwan, the anti‐​secession law pushes the window for a peaceful solution a bit further closed.

Clearly, the X factor for China is potential U.S. intervention. But China’s strategists think they may have the key to overcoming the United States: sinking a U.S. aircraft carrier. Chinese Major General Huang Bin explained the reasoning: “Once we decide to use force against Taiwan, we definitely will consider an intervention by the United States. The United States likes vain glory; if one of its aircraft carriers should be attacked and destroyed, people in the United States would begin to complain and quarrel loudly, and the U.S. president would find the going harder and harder.” China has equipped its advanced Sovremenny‐​class destroyers with Sunburn supersonic anti‐​ship missiles — missiles designed to sink large vessels such as aircraft carriers.

The prospect of potentially serious naval losses should elicit an open discussion in the United States about Washington’s Taiwan policy. Americans should begin asking themselves how high a cost they are willing to pay in order to provide for Taiwan’s independence. At this point, Taiwan’s political actions are making a confrontation more likely.

If Taiwan’s strategy is to act boldly beneath a perceived security guarantee, South Korea’s attitude could be characterized as “see no evil, hear no evil.” Although its neighbor is ruled by a bizarre, murderous tyrant who by most accounts possesses nuclear weapons, Seoul seems to prefer a combination of ignoring and appeasing Pyongyang rather than preparing for worst‐​case scenarios: a collapse in the North, or worse yet, an assault on the South. As a result of Seoul’s breezy attitude, the United States remains the final guarantor of the South’s security.

Secured by the “trip wire” of the 32,500 U.S. troops still stationed in South Korea, the South Koreans seem to be working earnestly to undermine U.S. policy on the Korean Peninsula. On the North Korean nuclear standoff, the South remains reluctant to fully align itself with the United States in order to present a unified diplomatic front to Pyongyang. Instead, it continues to provide economic aid to North Korea and opposes referring North Korea to the UN Security Council, undermining U.S. attempts to isolate and pressure Kim Jong-Il’s regime.

Seoul has also indicated that it has no intention of cooperating with America’s regional strategy. South Korean President Roo Moo‐​hyun pointedly said on March 8, “We will not be embroiled in any conflict in Northeast Asia against our will. This is an absolutely firm principle we cannot yield under any circumstance.” That position no doubt rankled the Pentagon, which has been seeking to portray its forces in South Korea as “strategically flexible” — that is, as forces that could be used in a regional contingency involving Taiwan. South Korea has linked itself closely to China’s economic growth and regional leadership, and is unlikely to support a defense of Taiwan. Seoul’s policy on the North Korean issue is also closer to Beijing’s approach than it is to Washington’s strategy.

Moreover, South Korea continues to underinvest in its own defense. According to the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ The Military Balance, South Korea’s defense budget in 2003 was $14.6 billion — a mere 2.8 percent of its gross domestic product. The United States currently spends roughly 3.6 percent of its GDP on defense — without a crazed neighbor on its border. South Korea is even reducing the size of its military forces. Clearly, Seoul has chosen to rely on its alliance with the United States while diverting military spending to domestic priorities.

South Koreans have also developed a strange view of potential threats. A poll last year revealed that while 33 percent of South Koreans believe that the North is the biggest threat to their security, 39 percent believe that the United States is the greatest threat. All these factors considered, South Korea should be told to pay its own way. Its economy is roughly 40 times larger than North Korea’s, and its population is more than twice as large. Spending tens of billions per year on a noncompliant ally that can defend itself is a burden U.S. taxpayers should not be asked to shoulder.

America’s East Asia policy is in dire need of an overhaul. Today’s policy‐​makers would do well to consider the fact that this is 2005, not 1955, and that maintaining Cold War‐​era protectorates out of bureaucratic inertia is folly. At the very least, officials should be forced to explain how it is that a dramatically changed geostrategic environment demands a U.S. security posture in East Asia almost exactly the same as that required by the Cold War. We now have the worst of all possible situations, as America is responsible for the defense of feckless clients that pursue risky policies that undermine our own interests and security.

About the Authors