Recent reports and editorials have highlighted challenges that the Obama administration faces in managing ties with Taiwan. Sensing a failing Taiwan policy. Members of Congress are ratcheting up the pressure. And rightly so. Plagued by an acute case of decidophobia, the Obama administration’s unwillingness to accept and act upon a legitimate request for a follow-on procurement of F-16 fighters symbolizes a broader problem. The problem is creeping abandonment of democratic Taiwan in favor of an increasingly assertive authoritarian People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Not since the Carter administration has an Executive Branch inched so close to casting aside Taiwan in order to placate China for ostensibly strategic reasons. This isn’t just a Republican-Democrat issue. Relatively speaking, the Clinton administration deserves high marks. And the current failings of the Obama administration can, at least in part, be a carry-over from the latter part of the Bush administration. While difficult to pinpoint, one could trace the problem to a select number of senior political appointees close to the President, weak leadership at the senior levels of the Pentagon, and an increasingly sophisticated and effective PRC influence operations campaign.
The Obama Team’s Line Up
One had high hopes for the Obama team as it entered office in January 2009. The administration’s Asia team members included seasoned, strategically-minded veterans, such as Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of Defense LTG (ret) Chip Gregson, and Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Mitchell. The latter two focused much of their time on Central Asia issues, despite having significant “boots on the ground” time in Taiwan. Chip Gregson has departed, and Derek Mitchell has been nominated to serve as Special Representative to Burma. Replacements have yet to be confirmed, including nomination of Mark Lippert as Chip Gregson’s replacement.
Sharp, seasoned Pentagon staffers with years of China/Taiwan policy experience within the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) include retired Navy Captain Joe Skinner and Principal Director Dave Helvey. The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense with direct oversight of Taiwan policy is long time Dianne Feinstein staffer Mike Schiffer. Most likely focused on Korea, Japan, and China military-to-military issues, Schiffer has made few public statements indicating strong support for Taiwan’s position. His former boss, Senator Feinstein, has been a leading proponent of China and advocate of U.S.-China relations. At the same time, she has questioned U.S. security assistance to Taiwan (see below).
Highly sensitive to how Taiwan arms sales could affect the U.S.-China military relationship, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Under Secretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy have been less vocal than their predecessors on Taiwan issues. In fact, Secretary Gates was quite sensitive to Chinese concerns regarding arms sales, without much apparent concern for Taiwan. Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn, who served as a senior Raytheon executive for seven years, appears to have recused himself on Taiwan issues. Lynn has announced his departure later this summer or Fall, and a replacement has yet to be named.
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Mike Mullen has endorsed Track 2 dialogues between ostensibly retired senior PLA officers and retired Navy Admiral Bill Owens, Joe Prueher, and others who have advocated abandonment of Taiwan. “Abandonment” of Taiwan presumably means amending or revoking the Taiwan Relations Act. Unlike their authoritarian cousins to the west who meet with the Secretary and Under Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon and in Beijing on a regular basis, Taiwan’s access to senior Pentagon officials remains severely limited. Newly appointed Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, may be more sympathetic to Taiwan, and Commander, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) ADM Robert Willard has been a solid advocate of Taiwan’s defense.
The remainder of the bureaucracy is relatively consistent with the past. Senior representatives of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), such as Bill Stanton, Ray Burghart, Barbara Schrage, and Greg Man offer solid policy advice. Very capable China hands originally included Jeff Bader, President Obama’s senior director for East Asian affairs. Jeff has returned to Brookings, and been replaced by a Korea specialist, Danny Russel. Former RAND analyst Evan Medeiros manages the China/Taiwan portfolio on the National Security Staff. As the sole remaining China hand in the Old Executive Office Building, Evan has demonstrated sympathy to Taiwan in the past, despite reports to the contrary.
This has been a solid line up, and people who should have been able develop creative solutions to balance interests in good China relations while not sacrificing Taiwan. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, presumably under advisement from Kurt Campbell, deserves high marks, as demonstrated by her tough rebukes against Chinese activities in the South China Sea. The remainder of the State Department bureaucracy serves as the bedrock of a principled status quo. These days, principled status quo is good. One should never forget the State Department resisted DoD efforts to re-establish military-to-military relations with China in the wake of the PLA’s bloody crackdown on protestors in June 1989.
So where is Obama team failing? Even the perception of drift toward abandoning a democracy in favor of an authoritarian Chinese government that relies on implied threats of force to resolve political differences. After all, the objective reality is that the Republic of China (ROC) exists as nation-state, despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations.In addition to weak support at senior levels within the Pentagon, problems may start with the Deputies Committee (DC). First, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg is said to have been personally invested in the notion of “strategic reassurance” with China, which presumably means accommodation of China (e.g., appeasement). The new buzzword is “strategic mutual trust.” Until his recent departure, Steinberg likely dominated DC meetings that addressed China issues, or Taiwan if ever raised to that level in the past couple of years. Tom Donilon served as Deputy National Security Advisor until last year, when he was appointed as Obama’s National Security Advisor. Donilon’s replacement, Denis McDonough, has no apparent record on Taiwan issues.
Theoretically, DC meetings tee up issues for consideration by the Principals. Secretary of Defense Bill Gates has been weak, and Donilon has no record on Taiwan to speak of. In short, adding to the weakness is a relatively passive Department of Defense, the traditional bedrock of support for Taiwan. Perhaps supporting a policy of strategic reassurance, senior uniformed military officers, such as CJCS Mullen, appear personally invested in a politically-tinged military relationship with counterparts within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Influencing Taiwan Policy from the Outside
Another factor contributing toward the drift in U.S. Taiwan policy may be the role of informal opinion leaders or groups. Beijing understands where to focus its influence – retired senior U.S. military officers with residual connections in the Pentagon, the financial establishment, and other communities of influence. Beijing has actively sought out U.S. friends willing to call for a halt to arms sales, amendment of the Taiwan Relations Act, or abandonment of Taiwan. China and its representatives also has been targeting traditionally conservative groups, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
One forum in particular – the Sanya Initiative - has involved retired four star generals and admirals. Sponsors have included the China Association for International Friendly Contact, C.H Tung’s Hong Kong-based China-US Exchange Foundation, and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. The PLA's Foreign Affairs Office supposedly provided translation support.
In the lead up to the initial meetings in 2008, CJCS Mike Mullen signed a letter to the organizers saying “I specifically endorse the meeting of four U.S. four star officers with their counterparts” in China. Then-PACOM Commander, ADM Tim Keating, also endorsed the dialogue. During the first round from February 19-22, 2008, former Nanjing Military Region Commander, General Zhu Wenquan, requested U.S. participants advocate in favor of a cessation of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, reduction in other forms of military cooperation, and a “review of the Taiwan Relations Act.”
As outlined in the meeting report, U.S. participants assured Chinese counterparts that the PLA's case - presumably including selling out a de facto democratic nation-state - would be made in Washington DC. In March 2008, one U.S. Sanya delegation representative -- a member of the U.S. Defense Policy Board – briefed the board on a proposal for the U.S.-China military relationship to be based on the “Sanya model,” and presented a plan to then-Secretary of Defense Bill Gates to change U.S. China policy. Another U.S. representative, a retired U.S. Marine general, advocated adjustments to DoD senior service school curriculum. Another offered to use channels to lobby the White House.
By September 2009, the organizer, former VCJCS, ADM (ret) Bill Owens, published an op-ed in the Financial Times. He advocated a halt to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and revisions to the Taiwan Relations Act, charging that the legislation is outdated and “not in our best interests.” Among other business pursuits, ADM (ret) Owens is a senior executive with AEA Investors, a major financial firm with close connections with former SecState Henry Kissinger and former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg. The latter has been cited as a source of funding for the Sanya Initiative.
The second round of meetings took place in Hawaii from October 16-24, 2009. Participants met with CJCS Mullen (see photo of CJCS with Owens, Xiong Guangkai, and rest of Sanya group above) and PACOM Commander Tim Keating. In recounting the meeting, one of the key Chinese sponsors asserted that “the joint statement issued after the talks said that the (retired) American military leaders unanimously felt that the Taiwan Relations Act needs to be reviewed.” After the Hawaii meetings, the Chinese side proceeded on to Washington, where they met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn, VCJCS General James Cartwright, and members of Congress. U.S. participants included former PACOM Commander, U.S. Ambassador to China, and Vice Chairman of the National Committee on U.S.- China Relations -- ADM (ret) Joe Prueher. The third round of the Sanya dialogue took place in Hangzhou on October 28-29. 2010, and included a new member to the U.S. group -- former PACOM Commander Tim Keating. The meetings also included U.S. Embassy participation.
Perhaps informed by the series of senior retired officer exchanges, the "abandon Taiwan" theme, ostensibly due to overriding strategic interests in China, appears to have expanded. In February 2010, Owens' replacement as VCJCS -- USAF Gen (ret) Joe Ralston -- published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal citing the freeze of US-China military relations as a result of the January 2010 Congressional notifications on Taiwan arms sales. He then proceeds to outline the overriding national security interests in the US-China military-to-military relationship, and establishing personal counterpart relations (e.g., assuming that PLA counterparts would actually answer a phone during a crisis). The editorial implied that Taiwan arms sales are an obstacle to the US-China military relationship. General (ret) Ralston is Vice Chairman of the Cohen Group, an enterprise with expanding business interests in China.
In June 2010, a senior U.S. senator (Diane Feinstein) stated that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan were hurting closer ties with China, and asked Defense Secretary Gates what Beijing would have to do for the Pentagon to reconsider the transfers. By March 2011, retired U.S. Pacific Command commanders Joe Prueher and Tim Keating, both with affiliations with the Sanya initiative, succeeded in getting more than a half dozen signatures on a report published by the University of Virginia Miller Center calling for a review of the Taiwan Relations Act and end to the “vicious circle” caused by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. In September 2010, another senator, Arlen Specter, argued on the floor that revisions to US arms sales could be warranted In Spring 2011, international relations theorist Charles Glaser joined the growing chorus calling for the abandonment of Taiwan. In May 2011, at the invitation of the Naval War College’s Maritime Studies Institute, one former senior U.S. official advocated U.S. support for Taiwan’s unification with China.
In late May 2011, visiting PLA Chief of General Staff Chen Bingde continued the campaign on Taiwan. During a joint press conference with ADM Mullen, Chen said "since I've arrived in the United States, I've had the opportunity to talk to some members of Congress and some of them told me that they also think that it is time for the United States to review this legislation.” Mullen responded by pointing the audience in the right direction: U.S. Congress should be the ones to initiate abandonment of Taiwan.
Arms Sales Freeze
China’s influence operations campaign appears to be working, at least with the Executive Branch. The F-16 issue, or rather the Obama administration’s refusal to accept and act upon a legitimate request to replace Taiwan’s remaining 60 F-5s, best symbolizes the Obama administration’s policy drift on Taiwan. Before 2001, representatives from Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense submitted a list of requests to senior U.S. policy officials in annual face to face meetings, thus ensuring stated requirements were understood and addressed. At the time, Bush administration officials assured counterparts from Taipei that written responses to requests would be provided within a reasonable timeframe (e.g., standard of 60 days).
What makes the F-16 issue so egregious is the refusal to accept formal letters of request (LOR) for price and availability (P&A) data since 2006.In July, the Obama administration is said to have committed to resolve the fighter issue by October 1, 2011. ADM Mullen reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to make a decision by October 1, 2011. However, observers have noted that the most likely course of action is to retrofit a portion of Taiwan’s existing F-16 fighter fleet with new radar systems and possibly engines. In effect, upgrades would be roughly on a par with F-16 Block 50/52. It remains unclear what configuration would be involved. Based on Defense News reporting from 2009, options likely include replacing APG-66(V)3 radar systems on current airframes with the APG-68(V)9 or perhaps an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Also included could be upgrades to the mission computer, new color multifunction displays and helmet mounted cueing, air-to-air and maritime interdiction munitions, as well as electronic countermeasure systems. Although likely to send the retrofit price tag through the roof, engine candidates include the General Electric F110-GE-129 and the Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229, with the latter as a preferable option.
If reporting is correct, release of additional F-16s – the priority – could continue to be held in abeyance. Release of F-16 Block 50/52 capabilities, yet withholding new airframes to replace aging F-5s, appears to be ill-advised. A minimalist decision is likely to draw Beijing’s ire, offer Taiwan’s political and military leadership with little choice but to proceed with the retrofit, force a deferral on replacement fighters for the F-5s, and undercut Taiwan’s leverage in cross-Strait relations. Congress is likely see a minimalist solution as insufficient. Click here for more.
However, the problem goes beyond F-16s. The Executive Branch has in effect had a freeze on new arms sales since 2007. The notifications sent to Congress in October 2008 and January 2010 constituted one of the final administrative steps following policy-level approvals for PATRIOT PAC-3 ground systems and missiles (policy approval in 2001); AH-64D APACHE attack helicopters (policy approval in 2002); and UH-60 BLACKHAWK utility helicopters (policy approval in 2007). The BLACKHAWKs were the last major arms sales to be approved.Perhaps most egregious is a reversal of U.S. policy commitments made in April 2011 to assist Taiwan in its acquisition of diesel electric submarines. In 2007, Taiwan's legislature authorized funding of the first of a two phased program through FMS channels. Unconfirmed rumors exist that senior members of the White House staff recommended to senior counterparts in Taiwan to abandon the program, initially in June 2008.
Since then, the Obama administration has frozen the Congressional notification of Phase I, estimated at U.S. $360 million.The Obama administration also has deferred resumption of trade and investment framework agreement (TIFA) talks. Taiwan’s restrictions on market access for U.S. beef have been cited as one rationale for freezing TIFA talks for the past four years. Unlike Taiwan, the U.S. Trade Representative has included the beef issue in trade negotiations with South Korean counterparts. Other Taiwan-related negotiations, including visa waiver and extradition initiatives, appear stalled. In the meantime, the director of China's State Council Taiwan Affairs Office Wang Yi visited Washington in late July 2011 to lobby senior US officials against arms sales.
The Return of Congress
Since 1979, Congress has played a traditional role in offsetting natural bureaucratic tendencies of the Executive Branch to write Taiwan off. Almost half the Senate signed off on a letter sent to President Obama on 26 May that advocated approval of F-16s. On August 1, 2011, more than 180 members of Congress signed another letter to the President arguing in favor of additional F-16s for Taiwan.
Other actions have been taken. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), presumably support by fellow members, held up the nomination of Bill Burns for Deputy Secretary of State. Nominations for Mark Lippert as Assistant Secretary of Defense and Wendy Sherman, as undersecretary of state for political affairs, could run into difficulties.
These have been initial shots across the bow. Much more may need needed to get U.S. Asia policy back on track. By enacting a de facto freeze on new major arms sales, deferring renewal of TIFA talks, and unwillingness to actively support Taiwan in its efforts gaining entry into international organizations, such as the ICAO, one could swear that the Obama administration is actively trying to resolve the “Taiwan problem” once and for all, and in a manner amenable to Chinese interests. This probably isn’t intentional. But the effects are the same.
On the low end of the political intensity spectrum, Senate and House staffers could consider introduction of language into FY12 legislation akin to the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act of 1999. Congress also could move to freeze military to military exchanges, using Representative Frank Wolf’s ban on NASA exchanges with Chinese counterparts as a model. An insightful and well-crafted op-ed published last month by a former Pentagon and State Department official highlighted some of the shortcomings of the current military relationship. The op-ed coincided with a vastly different perspective published by CJCS Mullen the same day in the New York Times. ADM Mullen had argued that military relations with China were "vital" to U.S. interests. Fact is, defense policy exchanges with PLA counterparts can be helpful. But not at the cost of fundamental interests in Taiwan. Allies and friends should take priority, given limited theater engagement funding.
At the extreme end, maybe Congress could go beyond a simple review of the Taiwan Relations Act, as friends of the Obama administration have advocated (e.g., Bill Owens, Joe Prueher, etc). Perhaps a review could consider aligning U.S. foreign policy with an objective reality: the existence of Taiwan, under its existing Republic of China (ROC) constitutional framework, as equally deserving of diplomatic status as the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Along these lines, Brookings Institute's Richard Bush offers some very thoughtful insights.
Taipei needs a regular, strong, visible signs of US support. Insecurity created by even the perception of waning U.S. support has historically resulted in radical policies on Taiwan, including development of weapons of mass destruction and means of delivery in the wake of the US-China 1972 and 1979 Communiques. Continuation of the on-going de facto freeze on new major arms sales, including deferral of Taiwan’s request for additional F-16s, arguably undermines new cross-Strait initiatives. The connection between past arms sales and subsequent breakthroughs in cross-Strait relations is amorphous, but not insignificant. And the Obama administration’s inaction sends the wrong signal by legitimizing military coercion as a means to resolve territorial and sovereignty disputes around the PRC periphery. It’s also very unfortunate that retired U.S. officials forget basic principles upon which the U.S. was founded, including support for fellow democracies. Fortunately, U.S. Congress has resumed its traditional role in offsetting natural Executive Branch tendencies to write Taiwan off.