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Special Commentary: The American Defense Commitment to Taiwan Continues to Deteriorate

America’s security relationship with Taiwan is both multi-tiered and comprehensive, and reaches far beyond arms sales to include myriad defense services and exchanges. Such military-to-military networking is vital to Taiwan’s ability to keep pace with modern defense training and with current tactical and strategic thinking. Nevertheless, such behind-the-scenes exchanges are merely one component of the security relationship. It is disingenuous to suggest, as some do, that because these exchanges are taking place, the U.S. security commitment is healthy. If other components – such as providing Taiwan with much needed new and modern equipment – are missing, the U.S. commitment remains incomplete.

2010 started off strong on Taiwan defense issues, with the January 29 Congressional notification of 5 separate arms sales programs. While the dollar value for these notifications was high – a combined US$6.4 billion – the programs themselves were not intrinsically controversial, as the bulk of the money went to Black Hawk utility helicopters and PAC-III missile defense batteries. These notifications represented the final significant parts of President George W. Bush’s April 2001 arms package – with the exception of diesel-electric submarines. In August of 2010, a second and much smaller package – less than US$250 million – of Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) programs were notified to Congress. Once again, these programs were not controversial, and pertained to upgrading the radars on Taiwan’s indigenous defense fighters.

Now, for the first time in 10 years, the Obama Administration has the opportunity to move forward and to ask new and important questions about Taiwan’s defensive needs and about the future of U.S. security support for Taiwan. To aid with this task, in May 2010 the US-Taiwan Business Council released a report entitled “The Balance of Air Power in the Taiwan Strait.” The Council’s report makes numerous significant recommendations to those concerned with Taiwan security policy – including to our own political and military leadership – on how to address the growing military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait.

Throughout 2010, numerous other analysts and observers also expressed their opinions on the direction that Taiwan should take on defense going forward. The overall consensus was that Taiwan isn’t spending enough on national security. The Council forecasts that Taiwan’s direct defense expenditures will reach only 2.16% of GDP in 2011, a figure that rises to 2.73% if you include non-direct defense expenditures. This percentage could even fall below 2% if Taiwan’s economic expansion continues to gather steam, falling far short of President Ma Ying-jeou’s campaign commitment to spend a minimum of 3% of GDP on Taiwan’s defense.

Moreover, the consensus was also that the United States needs to accelerate and de-politicize the political process for evaluating required capabilities for Taiwan, and for notifying to Congress the programs addressing those needs. In November 2010, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) released a statement noting that since 2007 they have had to return over US$1.4 billion to Taiwan’s treasury as a consequence of U.S. indecision on arms sales. America’s recent inability to offer timely notifications of programs is therefore having a material impact on Taiwan’s ability to fund its self defense.

The US-Taiwan Business Council comments on the U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan:

Special Commentary: The American Defense Commitment to Taiwan Continues to Deteriorate (PDF)

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