How the Republicans Forgot TaiwanThe post-9-11 American foreign policy obsession with the Middle East and Southwest Asia has passed its shelf life. Republicans should recognize this and permit the Obama administration to focus its attention on the problem that really counts: China’s rise
In a rational political universe, President Obama’s victory in getting the Iran nuclear deal past a reluctant Congress should have marked the beginning of the end of the 9-11 era in U.S. foreign policy. That era has been characterized by an extreme obsession with the Middle East and Southwest Asia. It included two major wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — as well as ongoing American efforts to nick Islamic extremism in the bud (by attacking al-Qaeda personnel at every turn, for example) and futile attempts to defuse Arab anger by finding a solution to the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
In a certain sense the era did not really begin on Sept. 11, 2001 at all, but rather in October 1973, when Arab oil producers engineered a huge spike in prices as a way of undermining Western support for Israel during the then ongoing Arab-Israeli War. That action made it clear to American policy makers that continuing Western access to cheap Persian Gulf hydrocarbons — the essential building block of post-World War II economic growth — could no longer be achieved without taking account of Arab political sensibilities. At least at the time, the lesson seemed an important one for maintaining global economic stability over the long term.
Outside of the Middle East and Southwest Asia itself, the American obsession with the area has had a profound effect on the seemingly disconnected Far East, particularly over the last decade, as China has leveraged its burgeoning economic power to expand its political clout in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Unable to fully concentrate on Far Eastern developments, both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have conspicuously failed to develop effective responses to China’s deepening political footprint, not only in the South China Sea littoral, but also in countries like South Korea, where doubts about American military resolve have encouraged senior politicians to forge closer relations with Beijing as an antidote to perceived diplomatic inconstancy from Washington.
The much bruited American “pivot” to Asia — unveiled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at an ASEAN security meeting in Hanoi in 2010 — was supposed to have stopped this process in its tracks, not least by reassuring Asian leaders that what was happening in the South China Sea did not sit well with the Washington policy making community. In the event, however, it did nothing of the kind. While the pivot’s start was promising — it included renewed American expressions of support for South Korea and Japan, and the announcement of the supposedly economically game-changing Trans-Pacific Partnership — it gradually lost its momentum, mostly because of a heightened U.S. emphasis on neutralizing the Iranian nuclear threat and on negotiating a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Once again Asian leaders got the short end of the stick, even as Chinese influence in the region was surging to new and worrying heights.
Nowhere was this perception more acute than in Taiwan, which obviously has more at stake in the China power game than any other country in the world. Long spurned by the U.S. as a diplomatic and political embarrassment, the Taiwanese leadership already had every conceivable reason to doubt American resolve in the face of growing Chinese power, despite occasional American weapons transfers to the Taiwanese military and deliberately vague American promises to come to Taiwan’s aid if China attacked it with impunity. While President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was clearly interested in forming closer ties with Beijing, the fact remains that the degree of his China tilt — expressed in unabashedly partisan initiatives like his Foreign Ministry’s initial failure to accept American aid in the immediate wake of Typhoon Morakot in August 2009 — might well have been controllable had the U.S. not been so preoccupied with Middle Eastern events. But faced with its indifference, the tilt became profound, and China’s influence grew. At the end of the day, this was down almost as much to the U.S. as it was to Ma.
All of which brings us to the current situation, which seen against the background of a hardheaded analysis of American national interests, seems to indicate that after almost 40 years of being deeply enmeshed in the geopolitical quagmire of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, the U.S. is now in a position to make a real Asian pivot possible. Consider the following Middle East and Southwest Asian elements:
Iran: The overriding significance of the Iranian nuclear deal for East and Southeast Asia is that it removes the country from the front burner of American diplomatic activity. To be sure the U.S. will continue monitoring the development of the Iranian nuclear program and tracking Tehran’s problematical support for extremist political groups in the Middle East — Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip in particular. But compared to the amount of attention that Washington has been expending on Tehran over the past several years, it will now have a lot more time on its hands — time that it can profitably devote to East and Southeast Asia.
Iraq and Afghanistan: Large-scale American involvement in these two countries is now finally over. During the heyday of the fighting there the U.S. was expending huge amounts of time, treasure and manpower in an ill-fated attempt to imbue them with democratic values and institutions. The biggest winner in all of this was Iran, which leveraged the destruction of Sunni Muslim power in Iraq to make common cause with the country’s American-installed Shi’ite leadership. Another big winner was China, which reveled in Washington’s obsession with feckless democratic nation-building to gradually expand its geopolitical footprint in the South China Sea. In retrospect this was one of the U.S.’ biggest foreign policy mistakes since the Vietnam War. It stands as a clear example of how the U.S.’ wrong-headed involvement in the Middle East and Southwest Asia suborned its global power.
Syria: On the face of it Syria seems a legitimate candidate for American political and military intervention. After all, Bashar al Assad is the oppressive leader of a minority-based regime whose friends include a number of regional forces deeply inimical to American interests — Iran among them. But President Obama has steadfastly refused to permit the large-scale dispatch of American boots to the complex Syrian ground. On the basis of genuine American interests this appears to have been a wise move. To be sure, the country’s gradual unraveling has unleashed a devastating refugee problem, which is now generating heart-rending headlines all around the world. But the problem is in no way related to the U.S. That distinction belongs to Europe, because of its geographical proximity to the ongoing Syrian conflict. Once again, the U.S. is fortuitously out of the picture, and can devote its attentions to where they really count the most — in East and Southeast Asia.
Islamic State: With its calculated brutality, IS seems a clear-cut challenge to civilized people everywhere. But this doesn’t mean that the U.S. should get involved in trying to stop it from spreading. This is because it offers no real challenge to legitimate American interests in the Middle East, particularly the stability of regimes in Jordan and Egypt, which are close American allies. Rather its activities should be examined dispassionately and seen for what they are — the thuggish excesses of a theatrical troupe with very sharp knives and a vicious ideology. At least until its influence spreads much further afield the U.S. should stay well clear of it, not least because the American homeland security apparatus is clearly qualified to deal with any IS blowback on American soil. Looked at dispassionately, that is its only real threat to the U.S.
Israel-Palestine: Since the 1970s the U.S. has been intimately involved in trying to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. These efforts reached their height in the summer of 2000 when President Clinton met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat at Camp David in Maryland. More recently, Secretary of State John Kerry tired anew to mediate between the sides, with similarly baleful results. His failure to make any progress at all was largely the fault of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seems to be far more interested in expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank than he is in permitting the establishment of a Palestinian state there. At least until Netanyahu is replaced by a more Israeli moderate figure — and the Palestinians start speaking with a single moderate voice of their own — there is no point in the U.S. re-engaging itself is this brand of wasteful diplomacy. Fortunately, Washington now seems to understand this, which is one more reason to think it will have more time to devote itself to East and Southeast Asian issues in the months and years to come. This is a positive development.
Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf: The American interest in this part of the world has long been predicated on its massive oil reserves and America’s need to access them both cheaply and conveniently. In recent years however, under the influence of revolutionary developments in oil exploration and production technology all of this has changed dramatically, as the U.S. has raised its own oil production to levels not seen in decades. The result of all this has been a massive fall in prices and a significant downgrading of the Persian Gulf’s importance in American foreign policy calculations. Of all the factors impacting upon the ability of the U.S. to shift its foreign affairs focus from the Middle East and Southwest Asia to China and the rest of the Far East, this one is arguably the most significant over the medium to long term. Its importance to America’s future cannot be overestimated.
This, then, is the heart of the case for American disengagement from the Middle East and Southwest Asia and a parallel move toward greater involvement in East and Southeast Asia. Given the nearly round the clock China bashing that leading Republican presidential candidates have engaged in over the last several weeks (always excepting the effervescently China-friendly Jeb Bush) one would have thought that the case would have found considerable favor with them, particularly as they could have used it to highlight Democratic transgressions in dealing effectively with China’s rise. These transgressions include not only the proven flaccidity of the Obama administration’s supposed Asia pivot, but also its dangerous refusal to countenance the budgeting of sufficient resources to help sustain a robust American military presence in the western Pacific.
But rather than embracing this Asia-centric case, the Republican establishment has seemed far more interested in hewing to a cheap foreign policy narrative that is apparently designed to score political points against the Democrats by attempting to resurrect the tarnished Middle East and Southwest Asia legacy of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Richard Cheney. The Republican establishment’s approach includes obsessive criticism of Hillary Clinton’s admittedly problematical handling of a fatal assault on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya; repeated assertions that had President Obama not gotten cold feet on nation-building in Iraq, President Bush’s “surge” there would have paved the way for a famous American victory; similar assertions that Obama’s dilly-dallying on Syrian chemical weapons caused incalculable harm to the U.S.’ reputation as a serious global player; and last but far from least, stentorian claims that Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran has driven a stake through the heart of the U.S.’ closest Middle Eastern ally (Israel) and set the stage for a new era in Iranian-sponsored terrorism that will unsettle the region and promote nuclear proliferation in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
To be sure, some of these criticisms do have merit, particularly the one involving Syrian chemical weapons, which at least on the basis of their precedent-setting awfulness, should have been addressed expeditiously by the U.S. military. Even so however, they clearly deflect attention from what should be the true focus of American global interest, which is China’s continuing rise, and its negative impact on U.S. standing in the Asia Pacific region. This is because by focusing on the Middle East and Southwest Asia the Republicans force the Obama administration to forestall a crucially important China debate and waste resources on peripheral issues. This undercuts not only key American allies in the Pacific like Japan and South Korea, but also Taiwan, which should be at the center of American calculations in the Western Pacific but instead is regarded as a pariah state that is best left to its own devices. Were the situation just a little bit different — were the administration able to fully engage in a serious re-assessment of its China policy — there is every reason to believe that Taiwan would begin to be seen for the strategic asset that it is. This is particularly true now, in the immediate wake of the understandable debunking of the once popular China as a “responsible stakeholder” argument that has necessarily followed compelling revelations of Beijing’s craven assertiveness in the South China Sea and its serial hacking of sensitive American computer systems.
In a far-reaching 2014 paper he wrote with Ian Easton for the Project 2049 Institute in suburban Washington (Standing Watch: Taiwan and Maritime Domain Awareness in the Western Pacific), Randall Schriver (who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under the administration of George W. Bush), made the Taiwan case in spades amid a convincing portrayal of how Taiwan’s intelligence facilities could help the strategic interests of the United States in Asia. Leveraging his own experience in government, Schriver makes the following specific recommendations to American policy makers concerned with the region’s future:
(1) Integrate Taiwan’s maritime domain awareness capabilities into a joint infrastructure for shared indications and warning and regional situational awareness.
(2) Work toward the ability to better share a common operational picture that would allow the sides to seamlessly work together as coalition partners during a crisis or conflict.
(3) Stop isolating Taiwan from bilateral and multilateral exercises and security events in order to appease or “reassure” Beijing’s communist party leadership.
(4) Allow U.S. military leaders at the two-star rank and above with significant joint experience to regularly visit counterparts in Taiwan and learn about the Western Pacific battlespace firsthand.
(5) Expand and deepen the U.S. Pacific Command’s military exchanges with Taiwan as part of its rebalance to Asia.
(6) Ensure that Taiwan’s advanced early-warning radar systems have software properly enabled so that Taiwan has a maritime, air and space tracking capability.
(7) Strengthen America’s relationship with Taiwan in the area of integrated undersea surveillance systems.
(8) Signal Taiwan and the U.S. defense industry of the U.S. intention to approve licensing for American industrial participation in Taiwan’s indigenous defense submarine program.
These are excellent suggestions which, taken together, could go a very long way toward improving Taiwan’s ability to maintain its de facto independence and enhance the American security posture in the Western Pacific. Unfortunately, however, they have little or no chance of being implemented until the U.S. ends its foreign policy obsession with the Middle East and Southwest Asia and turns its attention to East and Southeast Asia, where it surely now belongs. Given their intrinsic skepticism about China’s long term intentions, Republicans should be the first to appreciate this. But up until now they’ve deliberately failed to do so because of their wasteful preoccupation with cheap political games. It’s time they changed their approach and began serving the interests of the people of the U.S. as a whole. That’s what the people expect.
Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014. The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Thinking Taiwan Foundation.