5 June 2014
U.S. missile defense plans in Taiwan face rising opposition
by Maggie Ybarra and Guy Taylor
The Washington Times

Dale Wen-Chieh Jieh, head of the department of policy planning within the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meets with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. (Lloyd Villas/The Washington Times)

A delegation of high-level Taiwanese diplomats said Thursday that many of their own people oppose a major trade deal with mainland China, and also made a rare public acknowledgment of rising domestic resistance to U.S. pressure to expand a radar system for detecting long-range missile threats from Beijing.

The diplomats suggested that U.S. missile defense interests might be more palatable to the Taiwanese public if Washington were more willing to bolster more traditional aspects of Taiwan’s national defense, such as an expanded sale of American-made fighter jets and submarines.

At the same time, the officials, meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, criticized China’s record on human rights and individual freedoms. Twenty-five years after the bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square, they said Beijing should look to Taiwan as a model for democratic and social change.

“Like President Bush once said, ‘Taiwan is the beacon of democracy in the region,’” said Dale Wen-Chieh Jieh, who heads the department of policy planning within the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Mr. Jieh said that despite an unprecedented pursuit of closer relations between Taiwan and China over the past five years, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has “made a statement every year in support of democracy in mainland China.”

“Democracy is a founding value of Taiwan and, of course, we would like to see this political system or political philosophy really enter into mainland China,” he said. “Even though we want to improve relations across the Taiwan Strait, our stance on democratic values will not be compromised.”

Tense relations between Taiwan and China have eased in recent years, and Mr. Ma has called for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but Taiwan’s place in the Obama administration’s strategic calculus has become a subject of debate.

U.S. officials promoting the Obama administration’s Asia “pivot” rarely mention Taiwan. Instead, they appear more focused on enhancing relations with other allies on China’s periphery, such as South Korea and Japan, while pursuing ties with former adversaries such as Vietnam.

Another Taiwanese official, who joined Mr. Jieh at The Times, suggested that the 35th anniversary in April of the Taiwan Relations Act, long the cornerstone of U.S.-Taiwanese ties, was bittersweet.

“We have been very appreciative of the U.S. continued support of Taiwan’s security and economic survival, but, I have to say that it’s my personal experience in Washington that Taiwan, the name, has been less-frequently mentioned at important meetings,” said Kwei-Bo Huang, secretary general of Taiwan’s Association of Foreign Relations, a government-backed outfit created last year to help promote ties between the island and its partners around the world.

“Taiwan is still a very vital place in East Asia and in the [Obama administration‘s] rebalancing strategy,” said Mr. Huang, “even if it hasn’t been included, officially, in that big project.

“Taiwan is no less than Japan and South Korea as an important U.S. ally,” he said.

Long-range missile defense

The Taiwanese officials raised concern about U.S. pressure to expand a missile defense system on the island that could detect long-range missile threats from China.

Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee, introduced language to pave the way for such a system in the committee’s fiscal 2015 defense authorization bill.

The Forbes proposal calls for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency to explore the costs and benefits of merging a Taiwanese early-warning radar, which has the ability to peer deep into China, with the U.S. military’s own missile defense and sensor systems.

Mr. Huang said two to four “long-range early-warning radars” have been built along Taiwan’s western coastline, but some in Taiwan are resisting the idea of expanding the system.

“President Ma has been enduring so much domestic pressure, questioning, ‘Why do you need these long-range radar towers detecting the long-range missiles of mainland China that won’t target Taiwan but target some other countries?’” he said.

Despite the opposition, Mr. Huang said, the Ma government has “been very affirmative in helping the U.S. set up these radar towers because the Ma administration does believe that setting up these long-range radar towers not only helps the U.S., but also helps Taiwan.”

“It’s not my personal criticism, but a lot of people’s criticism in Taiwan is that, ‘Hey, why do we, Taiwan, need such big radar towers that can detect the inner land of mainland China?’” Mr. Huang said. “‘We don’t need that, actually.’ That’s some people’s argument.”

Mr. Huang said Taiwan wants U.S. military support that would protect Taiwan from external threats, including from China, regardless of U.S. concerns about Chinese long-range missile potential toward targets beyond the 115-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.

“It’s very important for the United States to show its substantial support for Taiwan,” he said. “If the U.S. continues to sell pre-warning radars to Taiwan we need something we can see, for example, something in the air, F-22, F-35 or submarines, that enhance our national defense capability.”

Trade deal with China

The Taiwanese officials praised the Obama administration for not interfering with the Ma government’s pursuit of a potentially historic agreement with China aimed at reducing tariffs and commercial barriers.

However, they stressed that Taiwan also wants to be considered for membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive Pacific Rim free trade proposal. Many foreign policy analysts say the Obama administration is pushing Asian trading partners on China’s periphery to sign on as a way to undercut Beijing’s growing economic clout in the region.

Although it remains to be seen how the separate trade deals will proceed and coexist, the Taiwanese officials acknowledged that there is resistance within Taiwan to the Ma government’s pursuit of a deal directly with Beijing.

“We do face some resistance from certain sectors of our society,” said Mr. Jieh. “We need to have more understanding and support from our grass-roots people about the benefits of signing a trade agreement.

“We’ve been in a not-cordial relationship with China for decades,” he said. “So I think the challenges facing the passage of this agreement on the surface are mainly internal. But that won’t change the determination of the government because, from the government point of view, it will bring tremendous economic interest to Taiwan.”

He said China is in talks with Japan and South Korea toward similar trade deals and that Taiwanese economists have determined that Taiwan will “face tremendous economic loss” unless it reaches a deal of its own with Beijing.

“Total economic loss to Taiwan,” Mr. Jieh said, “will be over $16.4 billion, which is totally unbearable for our economy.”

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