Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Taiwan Arms Sales: Temporary Hold or Freeze?

Today's Taipei Times covered an interesting Washington Times editorial penned by Randy Schriver. Randy is former Senior Country Director for China and Taiwan for the Secretary of Defense, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State responsible for China/Taiwan affairs during the Bush administration. He currently presides over the Project 2049 Institute and is an associate with Armitage International.

The editorial and Taipei Times' reporter William Lowther's summary, coming in the wake of the cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), is a useful reminder of an often ignored fact. Despite expanding cross-Strait economic links, China still relies on implicit or explicit threats of military force to resolve political differences with the Republic of China (ROC, or Taiwan).

Taiwan Link commentary is in blue (NOTE: Image courtesy of the Washington Times)

US may be considering Asia-Pacific policy shift



Wednesday, Jul 14, 2010, Page 1

Former US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia Randy Schriver said that US President Barack Obama's administration may be “on the verge” of changing its policies toward Taiwan and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

COMMENT: Guided by a coherent strategy and US legal statutes, policies should shift along with the dynamic nature of cross-Strait relations, China, Taiwan, and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. However, a policy that is grounded upon the so-called "status quo" is doomed to be reactive in nature. The lack of a coherent Obama administration strategy, juxtaposed against well-defined Chinese goals, exacerbates the problem. Instead of actively advancing positive foreign policy goals, such as a Chinese renunciation of use of force, a "status quo" policy emphasizes negatives. Setting the bar as low as possible, success is defined by no PRC use of force. However, real success is Chinese abandonment of the military instrument as a means to resolve an inherently political problem.

While not spelling out the possible change in detail, Schriver strongly hinted that it could result in a Taiwan arms sale freeze.

COMMENT: One could argue that a freeze on release of new systems has been in place since the Obama administration assumed control of the Executive Branch in January 2009. The Congressional notification package submitted in January 2010 was a final step in a long process that began with Bush administration policy decisions made years ago. The Bush administration committed to release the systems. The January 2010 Congressional notifications constituted the remaining second half of a package that the Bush administration should have forwarded in October 2008. President Barack Obama and his small group of political advisers have yet to approve and notify Congress of any new sale of major defense articles to Taiwan.

There may be a belief that a freeze on any new arms sales to Taiwan will reap benefits from Beijing, such as cooperation on North Korea, exchange rate adjustment, war on terrorism, Iran, etc. Or that the political costs of freezing new arms sales to Taiwan are and will be minimal, at least compared to the political pain that Obama's political advisers perceive China could dish out. And having committed to a "no trouble making" policy, the Ma administration is unlikely to push too hard on any US policy issue, economic, military, or otherwise. However, in bowing to Chinese pressure without any sign of direct reciprocation in the form of a substantive missile pull-back, the Obama administration is implicitly giving credence to China's reliance on military coercion as an instrument of national policy.

And furthermore, the Obama administration has reversed a policy decision made by President Bush in April 2001: diesel electric submarines. However, in fairness, there's plenty of responsibility to go around for failure to execute the submarine program. The ROC Navy earns low marks for creativity for placing the program in the hands of a conservative US Navy that never wanted to manage the program in the first place. The ROC Navy could have easily assumed programmatic responsibility and entrusted Taiwan's own shipbuilding industry.

Presidents Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou could have directed the ROC Navy to pursue alternative acquisition paths. However, sources close to both the Bush and Obama White House allege thatWhite House officials strongly suggested that the new Ma administration abandon Taiwan's 40-year quest for a fleet of 10 submarines. The Obama White House allegedly has repeated the suggestion. As a result, the Ma administration appears to have shelved the ROC Navy's long standing requirement.

In an article published on Monday in the conservative Washington Times, Schriver said that following the signing of the Economic Cooperative Framework Agreement (ECFA) by Taiwan and China, there was further evidence of cross-strait rapprochement.

“Curiously,” he wrote, the Chinese military buildup opposite Taiwan continues, with analysts saying that about 1,500 ballistic missiles are pointed at Taiwan.

COMMENT: This is where one should exercise caution. Bean counting of ballistic missiles has long been a metric of Chinese intent. Detractors could argue that there is little hard evidence that the 1500 number is valid, and that the growth has leveled off. But one has to define what class of ballistic missile one is referring to and elaborate upon the estimate's basis.

The ballistic missiles that are unambiguously dedicated toward Taiwan and have political and strategic significance are the short range ballistic missiles subordinate to the Second Artillery's 52 Base. An additional two 300 kilometer-range DF-11 brigades are subordinate to the Nanjing Military Region and provide tactical support for landing operations, rather than those under the Second Artillery that carry strategic significance. Furthermore, brigades equipped with nuclear-capable medium range ballistic missiles have a more diverse set of targets, and therefore could not necessarily be described as "targeted against Taiwan." The same goes for PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and Navy (PLAN) assets assigned to the Nanjing Military Region.

Therefore, the units that could best be classified as dedicated toward Taiwan are the five Second Artillery SRBM brigades that have been established for over five years. As in most military organizations, a standard table of equipment likely exists with a set number of missile assigned to each brigade. A standard number is set to match the logistical capacity of the units to which the missiles are assigned. Once the table has been filled, that's it. To continue an expansion, a new brigade with another logistical infrastructure should be formed.

If the 1500 number is based upon cumulative estimates of SRBMs manufactured and delivered, then one explanation is that new SRBM variants are replacing older variants. Older variants are likely retired. Solid rocket motors generally have a shelf life of around seven years, the point when cracks in the propellent significantly reduce the reliability and safety of the missile. Advanced storage and refurbishment technologies can serve to extend the shelf life. As new guidance, navigation, and control technologies become available, the entire design of a missile changes, foreclosing options for refurbishment.

Therefore, a plausible case could be made that the growth reflects production of replacement missiles rather than an expansion of the overall SRBM inventory (NOTE: Some have speculated that the PLA could attempt to get political credit for retiring older missile variants. However, political credit should be granted only for a true reduction in capabilities).

But could there be a new SRBM brigade, in addition to production of new variants to replace missiles in existing brigades? There is a new brigade being formed under the 52 Base. The question is whether or not the new brigade is being equipped with SRBMs or medium range ballistic missiles.

“Why have we not seen even a modest, symbolic step on China’s part, commensurate with improvements in the economic and political spheres, to reduce the military intimidation it imposes on the people of Taiwan?” Schriver asked.

“Understanding why the buildup continues, informs policy decisions the Obama administration must face,” he wrote.

COMMENT: Very good point. Mr. Schriver continues below.

There are four possible explanations for the continuing Chinese military buildup, he wrote.

The first is that China has “no intent whatsoever to diminish the tools of intimidation and coercion in which so much investment has been made.”

Rather, Chinese leaders “are forced to conclude that they must retain the military threat to keep Taiwan in check,” he wrote.

Yes, indeed! In general, the PLA has an organizational and bureaucratic interest in whipping up the Taiwan independence "threat." They likely argue that maintenance or expansion of the force posture is needed to deter independence advocates. These arguments are questionable on many grounds. However, the most relevant is that China's military posture may be the single-most important factor in alienating a large portion of Taiwan's domestic polity and has the reverse effect.

Second, civilian leaders in China may be unwilling — or perhaps even unable — to challenge the People's Liberation Army (PLA) leadership. In turn, the PLA knows that if it pulls back on Taiwan, its budget — and justification for its continued growth — could be cut, Schriver wrote.

The third possible explanation for the military buildup opposite Taiwan, he said, was it is really designed to threaten other US allies such as Japan.

COMMENT: Certainly. If Taiwan independence no longer became the justification, a new basis would be needed for military expenditures. But an overt preparations for a possible Japan contingency would undercut the PRC "peaceful development" image that the propaganda machine wants to project.

“Finally, a fourth possible explanation is that China might be willing to pull back missiles and reduce the threat — but is waiting for the right time and the right deal,” he wrote.

COMMENT: Just what would that deal be? One theory is that the PRC may want to deal with the US, rather than Taiwan on military-related issues, including confidence building measures (CBMs) that could relate to Taiwan (e.g., cross-Strait CBMs are kind of silly since Beijing's goal is to minimize Taiwan's confidence). The deal that Jiang Zemin allegedly tabled in 2002 was a missile withdrawal in exchange for agreement for halting or setting a timetable for halting arms sales.

The basic premise of such a bargain has merit and is at the foundation of the 1982 Communique. However, explicit bargaining is neither wise or justifiable. The basis for US arms sales is and should be the nature of the military challenge that China poses to Taiwan. The current PRC posture warrants a wide open door for the release of defense articles that the democratically elected government of Ma Ying-jeou deems necessary. Of course the US should make decisions to approve, disapprove, or defer based on its own interests. But as long as China refuses to significantly reduce its military posture opposite Taiwan, then arms sales should be routine and forthcoming.

Sources close the Obama administration have stated that a small group of former US government officials, senior retired flag officers, and foreign policy specialists have an on-going program with counterparts in Beijing designed to examine an "arms sales for force reductions" bargain under the auspices of a confidence building measures dialogue. The Sanya Initiative, spearheaded by retired Vice Admiral Bill Owens, has been similar, and one with explicit written blessing of Obama administration officials. A separate initiative for discussion of CBMs involves former US officials, including a former PACOM Commander. The next round of CBM talks is scheduled to take place in Beijing within the next week or two."

“If the PLA military buildup opposite Taiwan continues apace, the need to provide Taiwan with weapons for self-defense also continues. This should be manageable if Washington doesn’t lose its nerve,” he wrote.

COMMENT: But the Obama administration never had a nerve to lose. There has been no release and notifications of any new systems to Taiwan. The three notifications reported as being frozen in a June 2010 Defense News article are not even major defense items.

“The US approach over the course of many years has been to make weapons available to Taiwan so that Taipei’s leaders have the confidence to go to the negotiating table with Beijing. This approach is paying off, but some would have us abandon it just when benefits are being reaped,” he wrote.

COMMENT: Indeed. However, the ECFA is a functional, technical agreement and its political significance is overblown. It is necessary for economic reasons. The real negotiations would be those that address the permanent resolution of political differences in a manner amenable to Taiwan's democratic system of government. Negotiations would work toward a defining the international personality of the ROC or Taiwan, and the nature of its political relationship with the PRC. However, the Ma administration's position continues that of its predecessors. No political negotiations under conditions of military coercion. It has rightfully decided to make withdrawal of missiles directed against Taiwan a precondition for preliminary political negotiations that could lead toward some form of peace agreement.

He said that either through “willful misdirection” or through “naivete,” the Obama administration appears to be ready to change the long-standing policy of providing weapons to Taiwan.

The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to deny a Taiwan arms-sales freeze is in place, perhaps protesting a bit too much,” he wrote.

COMMENT: There indeed are pretty solid signs that that senior political advisers to President Obama have recommended sidelining Taiwan issues, including a conscious decision to defer any further Congressional notifications for Taiwan arms sales for the remainder of the year. Other sources allege that after the January 2010 notifications, assurances were provided to Chinese interlocutors that there would no more arms sales in the near term, without specifying for how long.

Regardless, principled, professional Asia/China hands on the NSC staff, and within State Department and the Pentagon know better, and of course will rush to reassure the public audience that there is no freeze. But the real test will be in the next few months. If the three minor notifications that President Obama has decided to hold aren't unfrozen in the next few months, then political pressure likely will mount, especially should the Republicans do well in the November elections.

However, a key driver that may put any further notifications on ice for the rest of the year could be the invitation that President Obama issued to Chinese President Hu Jintao last month for an official state visit, which most likely would occur shortly after Congressional elections in November 2010.

“Why does the administration continue a fiction that Taiwan has not formally requested more F-16[C/D] fighters? Why do mid and junior-level officials within the Obama administration allude to instructions from ‘senior leadership’ to hold congressional notifications on Taiwan arms sales and not to expect another major sale in 2010?” he asked.

COMMENT: See above. Under normal circumstances, release of additional F-16s should be a no-brainer. Taiwan already has F-16s, and additional airframes are replacements for old F-5s that are at the end of their useful service life. With Block 20 F-16s no longer in production, the Block 50/52 C/D version is the least capable variant available. Block 60 F-16 C/Ds would be a jump, as would the F-35B, which most analysts would agree is best suited for Taiwan's unique operating environment. If the F-16 issue isn't resolved by the end of this issue, the ROC Air Force (ROCAF), Ministry of National Defense (MND), and the Ma administration would be well-advised to submit a letter of request (LOR) for price and availability (P&A) data for 66 F-35B fighters to the Obama administration. And send a copy to the key staffers on the Hill to make sure they know that an LOR has been submitted.

“Even after [the] ECFA, a strong and capable Taiwan remains a key ingredient to security in the region,” he wrote.

1 comment:

EWRoss said...

It's one thing to delay U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, even for a protracted period. It's another to fundamentally change the policy given the language in the TRA. While many in Congress are concerned about the arms-sales-to-Taiwan issue, Congress has too many other big problems to worry about and doesn't want to put a Democratic president on the spot. Should the Republicans gain control of the House in November, however, they no doubt will hold hearings and put pressure on the Obama administration to explain itself and to respond to Taiwan's request for F-16s and other systems.