When you listen to US government officials and the punditocracy talk, what you hear is that Taiwan is to blame for dragging its feet on the arms purchases from the US. The island, we’re told, isn’t serous about its own defense. While it is true that the KMT-dominated legislature has caused grave harm to relations with the US, the US itself is also a problem, as US-Taiwan Business Council President Rupert Hammond-Chambers observes in a piece in an Op-Ed in The Hill today (emphasis mine):

At a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) asked Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte for a status report on arms sales to Taiwan. Mr. Negroponte responded that since Taiwan’s legislature approved substantial defense funding in 2007, the U.S. has not taken steps to advance Taiwan arms sales. He added that prior to moving forward, the U.S. will first “await developments there.”

But when Mr. Negroponte suggested that U.S. arms sales were stalled due to the political transition underway in Taiwan, he neglected to mention that his department is currently sitting on an unprecedented seven Taiwan arms sales notifications (valued at $11 billion) ready for informal review by Congress.

In April 2001, President Bush released a significant package of weapons to Taiwan to aid it in its military modernization efforts. This show of support for Taiwan’s security, consistent with U.S. obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), was welcomed on both sides of the Pacific.

But Taiwan’s then-President Chen Shui-bian miscalculated in his attempts to secure funding for the package, and the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) concluded that opposing U.S. weapons purchases would aid its domestic political fortunes. Thus, the long-held security consensus in Taiwan broke down, and the U.S. offer sat dormant for four years. In June and December of 2007, however, the domestic political impasse broke and Taiwan passed funding for all of the items released in 2001.

It is difficult to gauge why the Bush administration is delaying congressional notification on these sales. Perhaps they feel that cross-Strait relations are at a sensitive time and the U.S. should avoid provoking China, or that Taiwan needs to undergo a period of responsible behavior to reestablish trust.

Nevertheless, the United States has an obligation under the TRA to provide Taiwan with articles in support of its national defense, maintaining a balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. Further delays to Taiwan’s military modernization efforts would contribute to the military imbalance, not engender better security.

As Hammond-Chambers observes, China’s military strength is rapidly increasing, and Taiwan needs these weapons, especially the F-16s, to maintain a credible deterrent. They would also be a symbol of continuing US support for the island. The Bush Administration is “confused” — it seems unable to separate its problems with President Chen and the longstanding US commitment to Taiwan, he says. The problem the US has with Taiwan’s ability to defend itself was in part created by the US.

UPDATE: As an insightful observer pointed out, if you think about it: doesn’t the Bush Administration sitting on 8 Letters constitute a de facto arms freeze to Taiwan? Moreover, the Taiwan Defense Ministry will have to return the funding to the legislature if those programs are not approved by the Bush Administration by the end of the year, resulting in a huge mess over here as Defense and the Legislative Yuan lock horns over what should be approved.