President Ma Ying-Jeou of Taiwan called for the U.S. to end years of stalling and provide submarines and F-16 fighter jets to maintain “leverage” over China as the two civil war foes negotiate closer ties.
“The U.S. must help Taiwan level the playing field” for relations to continue improving, Ma said yesterday by video-link from Taipei to a forum organized by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Negotiating with a giant like the Chinese mainland is not without its risks.’
The U.S. goal of strengthening China ties has faltered repeatedly on arms sales to Taiwan, which China considers its territory and said it will invade to prevent formal independence. Ma, who will seek re-election next year, has been accused by opposition candidate Tsai Ing-wen of selling Taiwan short with a policy of rapprochement that was “boxed in a frame set by China.”
“This is something Taiwanese people want to hear from the president,” said Chang Wu-ueh, a political science professor at Taipei’s Tamkang University. “They want to know Ma’s willing to take risks to protect Taiwan. The Democratic Progressive Party has been attacking him as being too soft and weak.”
Taiwan’s request for new F-16 C/D fighters has been pending since 2006, and upgrades of F-16 A/Bs are on hold. Washington also has stalled a request for diesel-electric submarines.
Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month to say Taiwan’s military faces an “urgent” need for new Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) F-16s to avoid being left without “credible” air combat capabilities.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner, responding to Ma’s comments, cited the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which created the legal authority for unofficial relations with the island nation, including arms sales. The U.S., which that year switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taipei, doesn’t support independence for Taiwan.
“Our policy hasn’t changed,” Toner told reporters in Washington yesterday. “We always act in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act.”
Leaders in Beijing must do more to ease the risk of conflict with the nation across the Taiwan Strait, said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow in the China program at the center. China’s military has more than 1,500 missiles pointed at Taiwan, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
“We have not seen any reduction in the military buildup across the strait,” Glaser, who is an East Asia consultant to the U.S. government, said after the forum with Ma. “This is an area where China could make some gestures to Taiwan.”
Ma, who returned the Kuomintang party to power in 2008, is pinning hopes for a second four-year term on his stewardship of the economy and improved ties with China. Ma’s government has signed 15 economic agreements with the mainland, as Taiwan’s gross domestic product expanded 10.82 percent last year, the fastest pace in 23 years.
The rapprochement with China “continues to bear fruit,” Ma said yesterday. He cited Taiwan’s record total trade volume of $526 billion last year and said he plans to diversify the export market further by signing agreements with other nations similar to the one reached with the mainland in 2010.
The improving relations between the two sides have spurred interest from elsewhere, Ma said. He cited an increase in trade with China of 15 percent in the first quarter compared with rates of more than 30 percent with a group of nations in Southeast Asia and with the U.S.
Fraud is down after a crime crackdown on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Ma said. Visitors from China have helped create a “tourism boom,” and Taiwan has seen a “surge” of companies returning to be listed on the country’s stock exchange, he said.
The DPP opposes Ma’s pro-China policies, arguing that cross-strait trade accords will allow more imports into Taiwan and cost jobs. The party in June rallied tens of thousands of people in the capital to protest the trade accords, saying they will damage the local economy and undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty.
Improving the economic lot of the Taiwanese continues to take precedence over any discussions with China about more sensitive political issues, such as sovereignty, Ma said.
“We at the moment do not consider it is the most urgent thing to tackle,” he said.
Ma understands how potentially divisive the issues of sovereignty would be within Taiwan and between the two sides of the strait, Glaser said.
“I think he correctly focused on the near-term issues that affect the livelihood of the people of Taiwan,” Glaser said. “The very, very difficult issues should not be put on the table prematurely.”
Easing of restrictions by both governments on investment into Taiwan has done little to boost the flow of capital from China, economics ministry data show. Funds from China equaled 2 percent of Taiwan’s approved inbound foreign direct investment in the nine months after the rules were relaxed.