March 30, 2009

HARRISONBURG— Today in a commentary for National Interest online, the web edition of the foreign policy journal The National Interest, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, discusses the link between the publication last week by the Defense Department of the report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009 and United States relations with the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan.

The essay begins by observing that despite the overtures that Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has made towards the government of People’s Republic of China (PRC) since taking office last year, including the reestablishment of direct air, shipping, and postal links for the first time since 1949, the Pentagon report concludes that “there have been no signs that Beijing’s military dispositions opposite Taiwan have changed significantly.” To contrary, the PRC’s relentless military build-up means that “the balance of forces continues to shift in the mainland’s favor.” Thus, according to Dr. Pham:

To counter the growing military threat to its national security, the ROC’s Ministry of National Defense’s first-ever Quadrennial Defense Review, published earlier this month, adopts a two-pronged approach. First, it aims to focus on the creation of an all-volunteer, professional military, the cost savings of the slightly smaller force freeing up resources for modernization. Second, to preempt the PLA achieving air superiority, the Taiwanese are renewing their effort to purchase American-built advanced fifth-generation F-16 C/D fighters…[notwithstanding the fact that] the George W. Bush administration refused to even accept the Taiwan’s formal request for the sale in 2007, much less authorize it – despite our pledge in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

This time, however, Congress has weighed in with the unanimous passage last Tuesday by the House of Representative of a resolution reaffirming Congress’s “unwavering commitment” to the TRA and, the very next day, with the sending of a letter to President Obama signed by a bipartisan group of thirty senators in support of the framework legislation. The article concludes:

During the campaign last year, Obama expressed support for the “one China” policy. Nonetheless, he also congratulated Ma on his election and called for the PRC to respond to it “in a positive, constructive, and forward-leaning way” in order to “demonstrate to the people of Taiwan that the practical and non-confrontational approach that President-elect Ma promises to take…will be met with good faith and progress.” Specifically, then-Senator Obama appealed to Beijing to reduce its military deployment along the Taiwan Strait. One year later, President Obama’s own Defense Department has reported Beijing’s answer. The president faces a tough combination of issues: reining in U.S. military commitments abroad, stimulating economic activity at home (Taipei’s request to buy the F-16 C/D fighters alone would be worth nearly $5 billion to an American defense industry facing the prospect of major cuts in Pentagon procurement), and maintaining both the balance of power in East Asia and his own and America’s credibility on the world stage, Obama could do far worse than to follow the letter and spirit of the TRA and permit an old ally to have the means to defend itself – and, in so doing, secure U.S. interests amid an otherwise disadvantageous shift.

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