Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld held a book event in Chicago recently. In answering a question about China, he assessed, “War in the Taiwan Straits could only happen as the result of a monumental diplomatic blunder.” He is probably right. The problem is, Obama’s Taiwan policy increases the probability of political miscalculation.
Taiwan has now endured two years under the Obama Doctrine, which takes allies for granted and engages with adversaries. Granted the second Bush administration was not too eager to sell arms to Taiwan either. But Obama gets to the same place from a much different direction. And that makes all the difference.
The government in Taipei must have discovered by now what America’s enemies (or, in China’s case, our strategic competitors) seem largely to have figured out: This is a President who can be played.
Here is how it works. The President extends an “open hand” to the other side. Then he asks them to cut him a break. They, in turn, ask for much more than they give (as is the case with Russia ), and grab what they can get. Alternatively, as in the case of North Korea and Iran , they blow him off … for which they pay little or no price. Or they just ignore him (see China ). At the end of the day—regardless of how others exploit, manipulate, outmaneuver, or insult America —the president assures us that things are working out exactly according to plan.
Friends, by contrast, get the back of the hand.
For the Taiwanese, who depend on America to support them as they reach out to the People’s Republic of China, the Obama Doctrine must seem like very cold comfort.
Obama’s approach to conducting foreign policy is 180 degrees out of sync with what works in terms of stabilizing relations across the straits. Without question, relations between Beijing and Taipei improve most when the U.S. shows strong support for economic, diplomatic and military cooperation with Taiwan.
And nowhere is this White House likely to stumble more badly on its China policy than when it comes to the issue of arms transfers to Taiwan. Beijing has learned that, the louder it complains, the more likely this President is to back down. As the same time, Obama hates looking like a wimp—even when he is trying to wimp out on a commitment (for more on this, see Afghanistan policy). So there’s no questions the White House will try to do little or nothing and pretend it’s the right something.
This policy will most likely play itself out in how the U.S. follows through on upgrades to Taiwan’s fighter fleet. Right now, Taipei is stuck with a mix of obsolete F-5 and far too few old generation F-16 airframes. There is a lot of speculation that when Vice President Joe Biden goes to China (probably in August after he solves that pesky debt-ceiling issue), he’ll tell the Chinese not to worry, that the sale of new F-16C/Ds is off the table, though the U.S. might support (wink-wink, nod-nod) upgrades of Taiwan’s current F-16A/Bs.
There are problems with that trade-off that both Taipei and Beijing will see right through.
Taiwan obviously needs the F-16 C/D model merely to replace the F-5s. The government has publicly called for them 20 times over the last five years. However, every attempt to actually submit the paperwork necessary to make it happen has been rebuffed. It’s a game we play to ensure that the President never has to make a decision. All three of these attempts were made during the Bush administration. Bush was wrong to refuse them. But it speaks volumes about Taiwan’s low expectations that they have not even asked President Obama.
It is also wrong to assume that Beijing won’t make a big stink about upgrading the existing F-16 fleet. They have to figure they have already scared off the White House from selling F-16C/D planes. So rather then see the upgrade offer as a concession from Washington, the Chinese are more likely to pocket the concession on C/Ds and scream about the upgrades.
Even consulting with Beijing over the issue is a violation of the Taiwan Relations Act and Reagan’s six assurances. The Chinese know that. They’ll see any consideration of their objections as Obama capitulating his legal responsibilities to support the defense of Taiwan.
Anything less than pushing forward with supplying Taiwan an F-16 C/D fleet is the road to perdition. On the other hand, if Obama wanted to turn down the road of redemption, he’d do this and much more. Standing up for yourself and your friends is what gets Beijing’s attention. They may deal with supplicants, but they don’t respect their interests.