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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 28, 2010

U.S. needs strong Taiwan

By Bill Sharp

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Taiwanese soldiers stood in front of one of Taiwan's Patriot missile air defense systems in October 2004 near the northern coastal town of Wanli. China has warned that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan will harm U.S.-China relations.

Advertiser Library photo

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The Obama administration should be given credit for concluding a lingering Bush era arms sale to Taiwan and not yielding to China's insistence to stop all sales.

Relations between the U.S. and Taiwan are governed by the Taiwan Relations Act, which was passed by the Congress and signed by President Carter in 1979. A key provision of the act enables the U.S. to sell Taiwan defensive weapons.

Asian countries seek good economic and political relations with China; however, they closely observe how America conducts its relationship with Taiwan. How America deals with longtime friend Taiwan is seen as an index for assessing their own relations with the U.S. and just how committed the Obama administration is to re-engaging the region after neglect during the administration of Bush 43.

At one time or another, every country in Asia with which the U.S. has had a meaningful relationship has worried about abandonment. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's cry, "We're back!" still has not convinced everyone.

It is clear that since Ma Ying-jeou assumed the Taiwan presidency in May 2008, cross-strait tensions have eased. However, the ultimate goals of the two sides differ considerably: Taiwan wants the economic benefits of a closer relationship while maintaining political separation from China; China seeks to use better economic relations with Taiwan as a tool to achieve political unification.

Viewed from another perspective, China seeks to use the ongoing Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement negotiations to increase Taiwan's economic dependence on China. At the same time, it uses its economic and political influence to dissuade other countries from negotiating free trade agreements with Taiwan or selling Taipei any weapons.

Militarily, Beijing seeks to intimidate Taiwan by failing to remove any of the reported 1,200 to 1,400 missiles aimed at Taiwan.

Selling defensive weapons to Taiwan helps to strengthen the Taiwan military plus boost its self-confidence and morale. In the event of a mainland attack, Taiwan would need to hold the Chinese military at bay until American forces could arrive. A stronger Taiwan military reduces pressure on the U.S. and can make China realize that any attack on Taiwan could exact a human and material cost on China.

Providing defensive weapons to Taiwan under the framework of the Taiwan Relations Act enhances regional stability, a key goal of our East Asia policy.

To those who say the sale of weapons to Taiwan will hurt U.S.-China relations, one has to wonder just how helpful China has really been in stopping North Korean nuclear development.

China's primary goal in North Korea is to see a stable government, period.

Due to its demand for Iranian oil, China has been of little help in stemming Iranian nuclear development. It's increasingly clear that China wants to be the pre-eminent power in East Asia and would prefer that the U.S. leave the region.

Given its unremitting military buildup and penchant for secrecy, those in the American military who seek greater Chinese transparency are unlikely to gain much.

Others say that we have to consider the leverage in China's holdings of U.S. debt. In a recent EastWestWire, edited by the East West Center, noted China scholar Kenneth Lieberthal said, "China only holds less than 7 percent of outstanding Treasury bills and less than 7 percent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac debt." Not the overwhelming amount that most assume.

Due to differences in the political systems and world views of the U.S. and China, problems will still remain in the relationship even if the "Taiwan problem" ceased to exist.

Upholding America's commitments to Taiwan is in the nation's best interest, despite China's protest.

Bill Sharp teaches courses about East Asia at Hawai'i Pacific University and is the host of "Asia in Review" on 'Ōlelo. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.