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Obama again rebuffs Taiwan to appease PRC; Taipei lacks independent security strategy

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Global Information System in Washington and Taipei

The following is based on the original long-form reports

The Republic of China on Taiwan on June 24 petitioned Washington to be able to submit a letter of request (LoR) to buy 66 Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighter aircraft and an upgrade program for its 146 older F-16A/B fighters. The submission by the ROC diplomatic mission to the U.S., the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) its fourth for this program sought price and availability data for the aircraft. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the U.S. diplomatic office in Taipei, refused to accept the submission and declined comment. This was on June 26.

An armed US-made F-16 fighter takes off in Tainan, southern Taiwan on April 12. / AFP/Sam Yeh

However, AIT sources said that they had acted on direct orders of the National Security Council at the White House. Meanwhile, the F-16C/D production line is due to close in 2013, and the ROC Air Force (ROCAF) Northrop F-5E and Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters are scheduled to end their service life within five to 10 years.

The U.S. moves to sideline its alliance with the ROC out of fear of disrupting relations with the PRC are not new; they have been progressing since the U.S. Carter Administration in the late 1970s. However, U.S. President George W. Bush had attempted to reverse the situation.

A subsequent report in Defense & Foreign Affairs Special Analysis, dated June 3, 2010, and entitled The ROC Navy Faces a Critical Watershed as the East Asian Strategic Balance Changes, raised some of the critical aspects of the ROC’s already-transformed situation, insofar as they affected the maritime and naval strategies of the Republic of China:

1. The PRC’s defense budget, including its naval budget, has grown substantially, to the point where in every measure of funding, manpower, and even self-reliance, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) can comprehensively outmaneuver the ROCN. That part of the PRC defense budget which is known and much of the PRC defense budget is, we know, obscured was confirmed by the PRC Government in the beginning of March 2010 at 532.1-billion yuan, or U.S.$78-billion, an increase of 7.5 percent over 2009, following the 2009 official growth in defense spending in the PRC was 14.9 percent.

2. As a result of the new wealth of the PRC and as a result of the effective removal of U.S. alliance support, other than some military supply, for the ROC mainland China is now in a position to consider that the factors which once inhibited it from physically invading the ROC territory are now overcome. In other words, there is now nothing which could stop a PRC military adventure against the ROC, as messy and costly as it would be, in the event albeit a low probability that Beijing should decide on such an option.

3. The ROC Armed Forces, and particularly the Navy, suffer enormously from the fact that they cannot exercise regularly with foreign forces. Nothing depletes a force capability more seriously or rapidly than being unable to exercise against the highest level of potential threat, with other sophisticated armed forces.

4. The ROC Navy has essentially abandoned its potential for self-reliance in warship and major systems construction, and is therefore falling behind world standards in its surface and submarine capabilities in terms of quantity, quality, and self-reliance. This is in large part due to two factors:

(a) The leadership of the ROCN became afraid to recommend development of major vessels, particularly submarines, in shipyards on Taiwan because of the fear that contracting scandals of the type which plagued the purchase of the LaFayette-type frigates the Kang Ding-class from France in the 1990s would destroy careers; and

(b) The belief, based on a faulty understanding of U.S. reality, that the U.S. would fulfill President George W. Bush’s promise to sell conventional submarines to the ROCN. It was my duty merely as a private citizen in 2006 to convey to the ROC Minister of Defense the reality that the U.S. Navy would never obey the U.S. President’s command to find these submarines on the world market and supply them to the ROC. Thus, the ROCN lost its self-reliance because of fears over career security on the one hand, fuelled by wishful thinking that the U.S. would save them, on the other.

5. The ROCN has become gradually isolated from maritime mainstream thinking, and as a result the ability of ROC Armed Forces’ officers to speak foreign languages particularly English has declined over the past decades. This, along with budget and diplomatic constraints, makes it virtually impossible for the ROC to participate fully in global intelligence and strategic forums.

6. The ROC has absented itself from major maritime obligations, such as participation in remote counter-piracy operations and sea-lane security policies, even though the ROC was at one time a world leader in studying and understanding all matters relating to the security of Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs). Despite this, the ROC is, if anything, more dependent on global sea trade security to ensure the delivery of raw materials to the ROC economy. This is an economy which continues to grow, but without any meaningful security of supply. Moreover, the ROC has also virtually ceased competing on the global resource market.

7. The PRC has, in 2010, made it clear that will now begin contesting maritime areas which it had not had the resources to contest in the past. This is a direct challenge not only to the ROC’s dominions in the South China Sea, but to other states’ resources and sea lanes as well, including those of Japan, and potentially the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and so on.

8. The ROC has not undertaken any meaningful initiatives to rebuild, or build, credible if discreet military and intelligence relations with, for example, India, which is itself now increasingly challenged by PRC geopolitical expansion, both maritime and land-based.

9. The ROC is increasingly being put in the position where it will soon have no other option but to develop a strategic modus vivendi with the PRC. This will de facto create a broadened confederation of China ?, in which the ROC will take a position similar to, but perhaps more important than, Hong Kong. But at some point, the U.S. will see that the ROC has nowhere to go except into an accommodation with the PRC, and at that time Washington will cut off delivery of advanced weapons systems to the ROC.

10. The ROC is now, then, in a position at which it must decide whether or not it wishes to pursue sovereignty in an absolute sense. If it wishes this, then it will need to:

(a) Resume defense industrial self-reliance to a far greater degree than is now the case;

(b) Resume an aggressive global intelligence and discreet diplomatic capability to build tacit or express alliances or capabilities; and

(c) Resume a more aggressive posture with regard to the control of access to essential raw materials, and the means to safeguard their delivery to Taiwan. In order to achieve this, the ROC would need immediately to begin rebuilding its strategic analytical capabilities, and the foreign language capabilities of its military officer corps.

Despite the well-chronicled decline in U.S.-ROC strategic relations, and the reality that the U.S. Naval War College-based advice to the ROC Ministry of Defense in favor of Taiwan pursuing an Army-centric strategy has not helped the ROC develop a secure grand strategy, there is as yet little evidence that the ROC has begun re-evaluating its strategic posture. Much of this continues to reflect the fact that the Army dominates the budget process, taking some 80 percent of ROC defense spending in a country which depends on maritime and air trade for 99 percent of its inward and outward trade.

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