Author and blogger J Michael Cole, a frequent commentator in the Taipei Times, and an attendee at Thursday’s presentation.

On Thursday the 17th I had the great good fortune to attend a talk given by Randall Shriver, a longtime Taiwan booster who has held a number of US government posts concerned with Taiwan and Asia policy. With Shriver was Mark Stokes, a longtime Taiwanophile who has worked in DoD and private industry posts concerned with Taiwan, and as an attache in China. The two of them founded Project 2049, a thinktank concerned with Asian security issues (the name refers to the midpoint of the century, and the centennial of several key historical events). Shriver is currently a policy advisor to the McCain campaign. The talk was arranged by the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club (TFCC), and was held at the Caesar Park Hotel in Taipei.

Key points:

  • China’s growing clout in Washington means that pro-Taiwan moves by the US now come at a high and increasing cost. Hence the Bush Administration needs to drop the freeze now, since it will be very costly for the next Administration to do so. Both campaigns are trying to persuade the Bush Administration to end it before they come in.
  • the lack of clarity in the Ma Administration’s foreign policy. What end state does Ma want to achieve in cross-strait relations? What is Ma’s future policy or strategic vision for Taipei’s relations with Washington and Tokyo?
  • The freeze is unprecedented in Taipei-Washington relations, not only in its duration, but also in its size. 7 8 systems are blocked now, including spare parts for Taiwan’s current F-16s (!), and not including the requested 66 F-16s.
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    Shriver opened with a discussion of US-China relations. “There’s a very common narrative that I am sure all of you have heard about US-China relations, and that narrative focuses on their consistency, and the unchanging US policy toward China.” He went on to list how all administrations since we recognized China has followed the One China policy, worked for engagement with China, and all have gravited toward a more Sino-centric view of the Asia-Pacific region whatever their starting point was. He pointed out that this narrative could be decieving, because during the Bush Administration “significant” changes have occurred in the implementation and practices and habits of interaction between the two powers.

    First, the breadth of the interaction has changed, he pointed out. A decade ago the dialogue was limited to Taiwan, trade, and human rights. It was very predictable and scripted. The quality of the cooperation was restricted. But now, when we sit down with the Chinese, he observed, the talks “touch every part of the globe.” Discussions with the Chinese range across peacekeeping in Haiti, the Sudan situation, Iraq and the Middle East, climate change, energy security, North Korea and other Asian issues. “This is a dramatic change from ten years ago,” he said.

    The second change he identified was that the frequency and scope of the interactions has changed. Every one of the major bureaucracies in the government has its own dialogue with the Chinese. For example, Treasury has its Strategic Economic Dialogue. This is mirrored at every level of the bureaucracy, Shriver noted, and is now routinized. This is something that is very different from previous administrations.

    The third thing that has changed on the Bush Administration’s watch is “the tremendous influence that China has in Washington now,” Shriver said. Now some of the most skilled diplomats in the world serve in China’s embassy in DC. Corporate America is very energized and willing to work for Beijing on sticky bilateral issues, and the Chinese also employ lobbyists. Finally, Shriver added, there are the old friends of China. When there is an issue that the Chinese want to move on in Washington, he said, the amount of attention can be extremely intense and extremely effective.

    “What I’m really describing is an inheritance that doesn’t get rolled back easily,” he continued, referring to the problems the next Administration in Washington will face. What does that mean for Taiwan?

    The next Administration is going to inherit a diminished, weakened US-Taiwan relationship, one that is “fairly dysfunctional.” Shriver then moved on to one of the key points of his presentation, the idea of the “cost” of repairing relations and of carrying out actions on Taiwan’s behalf in the next Administration. Pursuing a more robust Taiwan agenda, as Shriver says he and others in Washington are in favor of, will come at a higher cost, due to the pressure Beijing will assert on Washington to temper that.

    Shriver next outlined some of the reasons for the impaired relationship between Washington and Taipei. Shriver argued that both sides, not just any particular individual, were responsible for the decline in relations. He observed that while there was a core of individuals in the Administration in 2001 who knew something about Taiwan, what they knew was the old KMT Taiwan — they had no experience working with the DPP. The US also sent mixed messages to Taiwan. He added that the US had also contributed to the arms purchase problems as well.

    The feeling in Washington was that the 2008 Taiwan Presidential election offered the opportunity for a fresh start no matter who won, Shriver described. He pointed out that in Washington there was/is a period of caution in dealing with the new Ma Administration, and Shriver said that this was a mistake. “We are losing some valuable time,” he said, in strengthening the relationship immediately so that the next Administration can “do the right thing” and restore the US-Taiwan relationship.

    Shriver and Stokes both agree that the US-Taiwan relationship can be more robust, with a range of areas full of “untapped potential.” However, Shriver is concerned that the Bush Administration is not doing its part to repair things. Some in Washington believe that the recent Taiwan-China reapproachment is a true watershed in the region and a historic opportunity, while others see things as going too much, too fast.

    “Seems to me that too much, too fast is not the right set of questions,” he said. The Ma Administration has a mandate to pursue changes in cross-strait relations, but they’ve really pursued “the low-hanging fruit.” Many of Ma’s successes were set up by the DPP, as was the increase in the number of tourists. These were relatively easy initiatives for Ma to pursue. What are the right questions to ask of these developments?

    Shriver answered this by pointing out that the real question is what the leadership in Taipei is thinking in terms of end goals and end state. We need to think about end points and what is sacrificed or compromised in the process, he pointed out, or else we will end up in an unwanted or unanticipated place.

    What is Taiwan’s policy toward the US? What efforts is Taipei making to strengthen the relationship? Shriver said it isn’t clear to him what Taipei’s policies toward strengthening relations with Washington and Tokyo are, and toward increasing its international space — “other than requesting more and more from Beijing.”

    What about the more difficult issues, the non-low hanging fruit? The WHO next year will be a test of China’s real sincerity. What happens to cross-strait relations if that fails?

    Shriver concluded by saying that his greatest interest at present is looking at what the Bush Administration can do in its waning days, and what the next Administration can do. At the moment the Bush Administration is focused on the high profile Olympic visit and the North Korean issue. It is unlikely that new initiatives on Taiwan will be undertaken.

    What about the arms sales? Is there a freeze? Things are muddled, he said. From the outside there is every appearance that the Bush Administration has decided, unilaterally, to suspend arms sales to Taiwan.

    Shriver said the record on Taiwan’s position is clear. The Ma Administration has stated publicly and privately that it wants the weapons. The Legislative Yuan has already authorized the funds — and thus, the obstacle is clearly in Washington. Shriver attributed the de facto freeze to the Bush Administration’s perception that it needs China’s cooperation on global and regional issues, and on the view of some in the Administration that this is best for Taiwan.

    The next US administration will have a difficult position, he observed. If it inherits a freeze, it will be costly to undo it — there will be a price. Shriver expressed the hope that they would undo the freeze, and that they would pursue a more robust policy with Taiwan.

    The first question was on the freeze. Shriver responded by saying that both the Obama and McCain campaigns have said they don’t want to inherit a freeze, and both are trying to persuade the Bush Administration to do the right thing. Shriver argued that both US law and US interests decree that the US should make weapons available to Taiwan. “The threat is clear,” he noted.

    Shriver was then asked about the reports that the KMT asked the US for the freeze. “We’ve asked the question directly, and been told it is not true.”

    What if the F-16s don’t go through? Shriver answered that the consequences would be serious. “You don’t fall behind linearly, but exponentially.” Recovery befores more difficult as time goes by, he said. For Ma to fulfill his ambitious agenda, he needs to be negotiating from a position of strength, Shriver averred. There are also credibility issues for the US, Shriver pointed out.

    Mark Stokes picked up the thread of Shriver’s reply. There are three issues, he stated. First is the budget. Taiwan already has passed the funding, and if the money is returned to the treasury, then resurrecting it in the next budgeting round will be “a bureaucratic nightmare.” Second, there is the simple problem that every day Taiwan does not have the systems, it falls one day behind. Finally, the current weapons systems in Taiwan are aging, Stokes observed. The credibility issue is also a problem. Stokes pointed out that the US Administration has criticized Taiwan for many years for not defending itself. When Taiwan finally gets a consensus on what it needs, suddenly the Bush Administration reverses its stance and refuses to sell the island weapons, he said. There’s a credibility issue there.

    Shriver was then asked about the views of DoD on the arms freeze. He said that the Defense Department is more focused on China, and giving a lot of interest and attention to the direction that China is taking. He then gave a short plug for Project 2049 latest project, envisioning alternate futures for the island. Shriver pointed out that because the US has refrained from specifying what outcome it wants in the Taiwan Strait, requiring only that it be peacefully arrived at, essentially the US position asks US soldiers to “die for a process.”

    He was also asked about Japan’s views, and said that in Tokyo, Ma comes to power “with a little bit of baggage” and the verdict is still out in Tokyo. The cross-strait changes are even more on the radar in Tokyo than in Washington, he said, and they are not comfortable with the current state of affairs. According to Shriver, Tokyo wants a more concrete strategic vision from Taipei, and a better feel for what Washington it doing. Washington’s policy was simply to give a big sigh of relief after the election, “and we haven’t finished exhaling,” he added. Washington needs to give more thought to what comes next, he said.

    The next question returned to the freeze, and Shriver reiterated his previous point: lifting the freeze will come at a cost. China will still be important no matter who the next president is. The easiest way to avoid the problems with China is to have the Bush Administration do the right thing, rather than push it onto the next Administration. Will there be legal action on the basis of the Taiwan Relations Act if the freeze is not lifted? You’d see noise about legal action, replied Shriver. Stokes pointed out that Congress has the power under the Arms Export Control Act to take action, if it likes.

    Stokes and Shriver both agreed that such a freeze is unprecedented in the history of US-Taiwan relations. Shriver’s said that from his outsider’s perspective it is a consensus opinion at the cabinet level in multiple agencies. But several times he cautioned that his was an outsider’s perspective.

    Stokes then added that the other unprecedented thing about the arms freeze is that it involves seven or eight systems that were originally approved back in 2001-2, including the submarine designs, Apache helicopters, Javelin missiles, Patriot ground units, utility helicopters, and spare parts for Taiwan’s current F-16s. More are coming down the pipeline too, he observed. What they should have done, he said, was approved them as each came in. Instead, they’ve been allowed to pile up — $11 billion in weapons systems, not including the current request for 66 F-16 fighters. The amount that is built up is unprecedented.

    The discussion then ranged over a number of issues, including Taiwan’s indigenous defense industry, and what weapons systems the island needs. Asked about the possibility of Obama or McCain Administration to push for more international space for the island. Shriver pointed out, as many US commentators have, that movement on international space is important for the Ma Administration. Shriver said that he expects that the next Administration will followed the stated policy of the Bush Administration, but that much would depend on how Beijing and Taipei handled the issues.