Has the US been trying to bolster the Ma Presidency?
Observers of the last two elections might have noted how the U.S made subtle but telling noises in support of President Ma at critical times late in the election campaigns. It is debatable whether this had any actual impact on voters but it certainly belied the US official position of non-intervention. In the past two weeks though we have seen an unusual level of activity between the US and Taiwan:
- Congress passed the sale of [dated] military ships to Taiwan
- 1st official cabinet-level visit of an American official to Taiwan since 2000
- Senior US official for APEC to visit Taiwan and meet Ma
- Taiwan and the US held another round of talks under the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) on April 4th in Washington
- According to Minister of National Defense Yen Ming (嚴明), the US has now said it will help Taiwan build Diesel submarines. According to the AIT, that is not true at all.
When you consider that waiting for US interaction with Taiwan, aside from exhortations that Taiwan allow the sale of US pork or beef, is like waiting for that special flower to bloom once every three years during a full solar eclipse, all this sudden action is unusual to say the least. Of course I may be reading much more into this than what is really there - after all the US also made a statement that TPP membership wasn’t linked to Taiwan signing trade agreements for ‘regional integration’ with China, something that quite embarrassed the Ma Administration who had been claiming the exact opposite. But we’re talking about the US here and the favourite sport of the State Department is definitely interfering in the economics and politics of other nations, often as a means to coerce third nations.
Two weeks ago here in Taipei a large group of student activists took control of the congress building and have remained there despite police attempts to expel them.
On Sunday nearly half a million citizens filled the streets in front of the Presidential Office Building in support of the student action, many staying into the night to pressure Taiwan’s president to respond to student demands. It was likely the second largest citizens’ protest in the nation’s history, though it may in fact have been the largest.
Taiwan’s citizens are furious that the ruling party (the Kuomintang) and its current leader, President Ma Ying-Jeou, have used every means at their disposal to force through a controversial trade pact with China (the Service Trade Agreement) without proper legislative review. The trade pact gives Chinese investors unprecedented leverage power on Taiwan’s economy, which would ultimately facilitate a future Chinese takeover of the island. President Ma’s actions are seen by most people here as those of an autocrat rather than a democratically elected president. His approval rating before this crisis even began was under 10%, which makes his heavy-handed handling of the pact even harder to stomach.
If the country is on edge awaiting the outcome of this tense standoff, it is even more on edge this morning since a large gangster organization, with strong ties to the Mainland, yesterday threatened to attack the students and expel them from the congress building some time on April 1. This particular gangster organization isn’t known for pulling April Fool’s pranks.
All in all this is the most serious political crisis Taiwan has faced since becoming a democracy two decades ago.
So where is the American media?
Latest territorial assertion by Beijing requires foreign crews operating in disputed waters to notify Chinese authorities
Interestingly, the US called the move by China ‘provocative and potentially dangerous’ - something of a diplomatic departure for a country that spent the period 2000~2008 blaming President Chen for being ‘provocative’ as per Beijing’s directives.
Another thing to note here is that, like the ADIZ, China knows that it’s claims and its intention to enforce them are in practice currently unenforceable. The purpose then would appear to be to pre-create pseudo-legal grounds for direct action later. China appears bent on challenging what it sees as US hegemony in its backyard but, like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, it is ‘testing the fence’ to find weaknesses in US response time and capability as part of building a ‘denial of entry’ strategy prior to asserting its presence in the South and East China seas.
The deep blue camp wants to restrict funds to the MND, claiming that China’s ongoing military build-up is nothing to worry about and that the money should be spent elsewhere. Chinese leaders must be watching these developments with positive glee. Taipei is doing more damage to its own ability to deter mainland [sic] coercion and military attack than any weapon the People’s Liberation Army could conceive. This damage represents a serious threat to Taiwan’s national security and by extension to the national security of the US and Japan. President Barack Obama’s decision “rhetorically and substantially” to omit Taiwan from his pivot to Asia had telegraphed to China that Taiwan was no longer central to US policy. By doing so, the US is inviting Chinese adventurism. The US can recalibrate its Taiwan policy by restarting arms sales to Taiwan that have been stalled for two years. The first step should be new F-16C/D fighters, followed by assistance with the procurement of submarines.
US-Taiwan Business Council president Rupert Hammond-Chambers in an article to the Wall-Street Journal.
All of the above are plausible claims. It’s a pity that analysts on the Beltway and in international media didn’t see this coming in 2008 or 2012 when they framed their analysis of Taiwanese elections in favour of Ma as a vote for cross-strait stability and easing of tensions. The long US retreat from Taiwan has not left a sealed vacuum - that space will be filled, and right now it is CCP and KMT cadres who are doing so, protected by the ‘black box’ of party-to-party negotiations masked by, amongst other institutions, the MAC and SEF, TAO and ARATS. It is also worth bearing in mind that the long retreat has been going on, at different speeds, since 1971. It is under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations that drip drip concessions to Chinese ‘feelings’ and ‘core interests’ have turned into a relative deluge. It is uncertain how soon, if it has not already happened, Taiwan will meet a ‘tipping point’ at which it will be forced to choose either conflict or a permanent change to the status-quo that all but annexes it into the PRC.
TAIPEI — Taiwan said Monday that it needs fighter jets which are more advanced than the upgraded F-16 announced by the United States, suggesting that it was dropping its bid for dozens of the aircraft.
LOL … Phase Three of the F-16 issue: after Phase Two in which the US refused to sell C/Ds, Ma now rejects upgrades to A/Bs in preparation for asking for F35s - something it knows the US will never agree to. They will say they tried but its hands are tied because the US doesn’t want to antagonise China and undermine the development of peaceful cross-strait relations TM.
This is all the more funny given a speech Ma made last week in which he hailed his administration’s substantial arms purchases.
I suspect the ultimate goal is to make Taiwan’s air defence so weak as to make defence of Taiwan unfeasible therefore creating the right conditions for presenting some form of annexation as an inevitable fait accompli.
But let’s not focus entire on Ma’s goal to sell Taiwan off. Everyone has known what his ultimate agenda has been all along. The US however, has been pulling out of its commitments to Taiwan since 1997 and has essentially signalled that it is happy to concede Taiwan to a PRC sphere of influence. It is a strategic error it, by most of all the Taiwanese people, will come to bitterly regret later on.
TVFT pulls back the curtain on US faux ‘pivot’ to Asia.
As The View From Taiwan (see links) has pointed out ad nauseum, Ma’s policy on the Senkaku Islands is to try a wedge between the US and Taiwan and between Japan and Taiwan whilst simultaneously moving the country closer to China.
Remember when Ma was citing one of former President Chen’s greatest crimes as hurting Taiwan-US ties by being provocative? Turns out Ma is not only a bumbler but actually disruptive:
Weighing the pros and cons of the situation, the US could be seeing Taiwan as a problem in this issue, he (George Washington University’s Robert Sutter) added.
“You could come to the conclusion that the US government would prefer that Taiwan not further complicate the situation,” he said.
At a time when Washington is trying to iron out problems surrounding the islands, Taiwan taking a more assertive stance “is something that is probably not welcome,” Sutter said.
Ma’s actions of sending coastguard boats to protect fishing vessels approaching the islands and becoming involved in a water canon fight with the Japanese “do not fit well with what the US wants to do.”
Sutter said Taiwan could be seen by the US as being “disruptive.”
Meanwhile Steven Philips of Towson University utterly missed the point:
Taiwan does not have to win the Diaoyutais conflict, but it does not want to be seen as losing, he added.
Ma’s actions over the islands were “an attempt to raise up Taiwan’s international status” as much as they were an attempt to win sovereignty, Phillips said.
Phillips said that Taipei’s claims to the islands were the weakest of the three claimants and there was a danger that the issue could damage the country’s credibility.
Ma’s actions were nothing to do with raising Taiwan’s international status or win sovereignty. They were about demonstrating Taiwan could be a useful partner in a United Front with the CCP and China over ‘core issues’ that Beijing regards as red lines in the sand. Whilst Phillips is right that the issue could damage the country’s credibility it is interesting that he said Taipei’s claims to the islands were the weakest of the three (China, Japan and Taiwan). That can be read in two ways of course. If you read ‘weakest’ as carrying the least weight and attention in the game of international diplomacy and geo-strategic competition then he is right. If you read ‘weakest’ in terms of the location of the islands, and historical interaction with them then I think he is wrong. Of course an important distinction to make here is that Ma wasn’t claiming the Senkaku’s as being part of Taiwan’s inalienable sovereign territory but as part of the R.O.C’s sovereign territory. That’s a huge difference. Ma’s government played the issue to domestic audiences as a fight for Taiwan’s territory and fishing rights but internationally as a fight by the R.O.C, which by virtue of the mythical ‘1992 Consensus’ and the colonialist enabling One China Principle, also validates the PRC’s claim on the islands. We can see this in the fact that despite PRC vessels (fishing and military though it is hard to tell the difference when the former acts as a proxy for the latter) repeatedly encroaching upon the islands, Ma made no mention of them and no Taiwanese fishing vessels or Coast Guard Administration ships came into conflict with them.
Taipei Times Cartoon on the spat between Taiwan and the US over blocked US beef imports.