MOFA Clarifies its Stance on Joining US Missile Defense AllianceA top foreign affairs official denies saying that there is strong ‘domestic pressure’ against Taiwan joining a regional missile defense program
Ever since the Obama administration announced its “pivot” to Asia in the fall of 2011, the one-million-dollar-question in Taiwan has been what role, if any, the country would play in the U.S.-led multilateral effort. Within defense circles particularly, there was hope that Washington include Taiwan in its rebalancing, a move that, military considerations aside, would do much to assuage the fears of abandonment that have crept up in recent years. A role for Taiwan is therefore almost unanimously seen as desirable.
Little wonder, then, that many Taiwan watchers were puzzled when a U.S. newspaper quoted a top Ministry of Foreign Affairs Official (MOFA) official telling his interlocutors during a visit to Washington, D.C., recently that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was facing mounting public opposition to a proposed missile defense program that could ensure a key function for Taiwan in the “pivot.”
According to the Washington Times, Dale Wen-Chieh Jieh (介文汲), director-general of the Department of Policy Planning at MOFA, said during a visit last week that, “President Ma has been enduring so much domestic pressure [about the plan, with the critics] 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?’”
Jieh is then quoted as saying, “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?’”
Contacted for clarifications on June 9, Mr. Jieh told Thinking Taiwan that another member of the delegation— Huang Kwei-bo (黃奎博), secretary general of Taiwan’s Association of Foreign Relations (AFR) — had made the remarks and that MOFA had requested that the Times correct its article (which was picked up by the Taipei Times, among others).
Inaugurated on Dec. 4, 2013, the AFR is mandated with promoting ties on several issues between Taiwan and its partners around the world. Working with academics, business leaders, and retired diplomats, the think tank was the brainchild of former minister of foreign affairs Timothy Yang (楊進添). Though officially a non-governmental organization based on the model of the Council on Foreign Relations in the U.S., Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lin (林永樂) said that MOFA would work closely with AFR to achieve its goals.
Although Mr. Jieh confirmed that Huang’s remarks did not necessarily reflect those of the administration, there is always a risk that the close links between MOFA and the AFR could lead U.S. officials to conclude that Huang is speaking on behalf of the administration. Consequently, MOFA should promptly clarify the matter with a public statement and reassurances to Washington. Rectifying “who said what” is insufficient to dispel doubts in the U.S.
Having established that Mr. Huang, not Mr. Jieh, made those remarks, let us return to the question, as the subject will likely have legs for some time yet.
The “rising concern” that Mr. Huang was alluding to in Washington seems to be related to U.S. “pressure” on Taiwan to merge Taiwan’s long-range early-warning radar (EWR), completed in late 2012, with U.S. missile defense systems within the region. Representative J. Randy Forbes, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, recently proposed that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency evaluate the costs and benefits of implementing such a program with Taiwan.
There are, however, a few problems with Mr. Huang’s account. For starters, he refers to “two to four” long-range EWRs along Taiwan’s western coastline. This is wrong. Only one such radar — on Leshan (樂山), Hsinshu County, which became operational in February 2013 — would play a role in missile defense. As an industry source told Thinking Taiwan, other radars and towers have been built along the coast, but they serve other functions. Whatever “U.S. pressure” may have been applied on Taiwan also isn’t about forcing Taipei to purchase more billion-dollar-plus EWRs.
But military affairs isn’t, as far as we know, Mr. Huang’s expertise, so we can perhaps forgive the confusion.
More troubling are his claims of “so much domestic pressure” against a possible integration into a regional U.S. missile defense system. He provides no information as to the origin of that pressure. Are there figures? Opinion polls? Protests on the street? We simply don’t know. What we do know is that his claim contradicts what many defense specialists — including this author, who has covered military affairs in Taiwan for nearly a decade — have been hearing. Industry sources and members of Congress who are involved in such matters are also unaware of such sentiment. Surely if there were mounting opposition to such a project, as Mr. Huang claims, we would have encountered it by now, as Taiwanese have become very vocal in their discontent with many of the administration’s policies. (Granted, bringing Taiwan into a regional missile defense network would increase the likelihood that its EWR sites would be attacked by China amid hostilities with a third country, e.g., Japan.)
There is no doubt that Taiwan’s armed forces are eager for greater cooperation with the U.S. on regional defense, including working together in countering China’s formidable missile arsenal. Furthermore, anyone who knows anything about defense understands that the ability of the Second Artillery Corps to target other countries (or carrier battle groups at sea, as with the DF-21D) with its medium- and long-range ballistic missiles would be crucial to a successful military campaign against Taiwan. As Toshi Yoshihara of the U.S. Naval War College wrote in a recent study of U.S. basing in the Asia-Pacific, “Taiwan remains the animating force behind China’s strategic calculus with respect to regional bases in Asia.”
In other words, the argument that Taiwan should not play a role in regional missile defense because the missiles ostensibly tracked by Taiwanese radar would not hit Taiwan is pure nonsense. In any Taiwan Strait scenario, U.S. (and possibly Japanese) forces based in Okinawa and at Yokosuka, and further into the West pacific (e.g., Hawaii, Guam), would likely be activated and called upon to assist with Taiwan’s defenses. Arguably, helping counter missiles that can deter such involvement and disable allied forces (airstrips, ports, radar facilities, C4ISR network) is very much in Taiwan’s interest, and the Ministry of National Defense understands that very well. (It is also hard to imagine that the U.S. would have agreed to sell the EWR, which can track any air-breathing target as far as 3,000km inside China, without the hope of being able to tap into that precious data at some point, especially given Taiwan’s optimal geographical location vis-à-vis China.)
What is less certain is whether the civilian side of the Ma administration is as keen to cooperate with the U.S. on regional missile defense, as doing so would likely complicate ongoing efforts at rapprochement — Taipei’s top policy priority. Above all, Ma would be loath to send signals that Taiwan is a willing participant in any effort to “contain” China, even if, in terms of a cost-effective way to bolster its defenses, joining a multinational missile defense program would be the logical thing to do. Better then to continue calling for the release of defense articles that would only have a marginal impact on Taiwan’s ability to defend itself — such as more F-16s — or platforms that are well beyond Taiwan’s ability to procure, such as the F-22, F-35, or submarines. Ironically, those three platforms are exactly what Huang said Washington should release.
Of course the Ma administration cannot say outright that it has little interest in joining a U.S.-led regional missile defense architecture. “Domestic pressure” is therefore made the scapegoat, providing a convenient façade for an administration that claims it would like to cooperate with the U.S., but sadly must yield to public opinion. Using unofficial voices to communicate the message can also help in that regard. It doesn’t matter that the purported pressure is likely disinformation to confound Washington, or that on other issues such as the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), Taipei was utterly uninterested in what the public had to say. Given signs that Washington officials may not exactly be on top of things when it comes to civic activism in Taiwan, Huang and friends may have concluded that they can get away with it.
After years of bemoaning its isolation, Taiwan is finally given a chance to integrate a regional security alliance to counter an increasingly belligerent and expansionist China, which could open the door to further cooperation with allies in the Asia-Pacific. Instead of jumping at the opportunity, some civilians in Taipei seem keen on nipping that chance in the bud.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.