August 4, 2008

HARRISONBURG— Today in a commentary for National Interest online, the web edition of the foreign policy journal The National Interest, on the occasion of President George W. Bush’s departure for Asia to attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, questions the delay in the approval of the sale of a package of defense articles to the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan and wonders whether the president may be a participant in “a diplomatic ritual older than the ancient Olympiads: the Chinese tradition of tributary diplomacy.”

At issue is an $11 billion defense package—including Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile defense systems, P-3C Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft, Apache helicopters, Kidd-class destroyers, diesel-electric submarines, and a command, control, and communication system—which, in 2001, the Bush administration itself originally proposed to sell as part of American obligations under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to provide the island with “such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” While internal Taiwanese politics delayed the appropriation of the funds to make the purchase, the money has been subsequently approved as has a further $5 billion for 66 F-16 C/D fighters that the ROC needs to modernize its superannuated air forces. Two weeks ago, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, while denying the accuracy of comments made by Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, to the effect that arms sales to Taiwan had been frozen, conceded that the “interagency process” was still ongoing and a final decision had yet to be made.

The essay notes:

 One does not have to agree with former–Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton’s recent assertion that the Bush administration’s foreign policy is “in total intellectual collapse” to question the rationality of its ill-disguised foot-dragging on helping Taipei maintain its defenses. At a time when the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army are rapidly expanding, the delicate cross-strait balance is being jeopardized. Not only will the effective suspension of arms sales undermine the balance of power, it will also increase the burden on the United States, because Washington must make up for the gap in the security capacity of the East Asian democracies, which depend on an overstretched U.S. military. More ominously, should American forces ever have to intervene in a cross-strait “unification” scenario, they will be at a disadvantage.

Consequently, Dr. Pham concludes:

It can only be hoped that the delay to date has been an astute diplomatic stratagem to avoid bruising the face that Beijing’s contemporary mandarins are striving to present in advance of their Olympic show and that, after the president and his fellow spectators have trooped away from the festivities, the sales will be allowed to quietly proceed. ..[However, if] after running for office eight years ago on a platform that pledged to “honor our promises to the people of Taiwan” by “the timely sale of defensive arms to enhance Taiwan’s security,” President Bush leaves office with the defense package in limbo, then what will be clear is that the gift he presents this week is not merely symbolic acknowledgment of China’s standing in the world. Instead, substantive tribute will be paid in the coin of America’s credibility and strategic interests across Asia—for years to come.

The full text of Dr. Pham’s commentary, “Paying Tribute,” can be accessed by clicking here.