William A. Stanton
Director of Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing-Hua University
Former Director of American Institute in Taiwan
An Inevitable Rebalance
The U.S. “pivot” to Asia, first enunciated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in October 2011 in an article in Foreign Policy, was inevitable. Since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has usually been focused on the Soviet Union, a divided Europe, and the always troubled Middle East. The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989; the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991; the departure of the last U.S. troops from Iraq on December 18, 2011; and the beginning of the withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan announced by President Obama on June 22, 2011: all were huge changes requiring a reorientation of U.S. foreign policy.
It was also natural that the attention of the United States would turn to Asia. As Secretary Clinton wrote, “The Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics. Stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas, the region spans two oceans — the Pacific and the Indian — that are increasingly linked by shipping and strategy. It boasts almost half the world’s population. It includes many of the key engines of the global economy, as well as the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. It is home to several of our key allies and important emerging powers like China, India, and Indonesia.”
Although the ‘pivot” has been perceived as largely military in nature, Secretary Clinton was careful to stress that her rebalancing concept included other dimensions as well. As she expressed it, there would be: “six key lines of action: strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening our working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights.”
In fact, in economic terms alone, a redirection of government attention toward Asia was long overdue as the economic importance of the region, led by China, continued to grow. As of 2013, for example, East Asian countries and India alone accounted for over one-third of world’s gross domestic product. Even before President Obama was elected, the U.S. decision in 2008 to join the first round of negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership was already a major step toward the pivot.
In some respects, however, the pivot represented not so much an innovation but a return to a more normal state of affairs. For example, many of the U.S. military forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan had actually been drawn from the U.S. Pacific Command or U.S. Forces Korea. With the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the winding down of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, many of these forces could return to their previous bases in Asia and the Pacific. An earlier status quo was restored.
Even before the announcement of the pivot, moreover, the Obama Administration signaled its commitment to giving greater attention to Asia. In February 2009, Clinton’s first trip as Secretary of State was to Asia, and she was the first and only Secretary of State for whom that was true. By the time she announced the pivot, she had made seven more trips to Asia. In his first full month in office, President Obama welcomed Japan’s Prime Minister Taro Aso as his first foreign leader to visit the White House.
The pivot was also evident in the travel of both Obama and Clinton. Thus far, President Obama has visited 13 Asian-Pacific countries, including India and Australia, and of these he visited South Korea four times and Japan three times. During her four-year tenure, Secretary Clinton visited 14 East Asia countries, including all the members of ASEAN, as well as Hong Kong. This stands in stark contrast to Clinton’s predecessor Condoleezza Rice who acquired notoriety in Asia for being the first U.S. Secretary of State to miss the ASEAN Regional Forum since it was established in 1994, and for missing it twice, first in 2005 and again in 2007.
U.S. Budget Constraints on a Military Pivot
Of course, if visits were evidence of interest and commitment, critics were quick to criticize the apparent absence of commitment when those visits don’t occur. When the U.S. Federal Government was shut down October 2 to 16 in 2013 by Congress’s failure to pass a budget, President Obama was forced to remain in Washington and could not attend the East Asia Summit and US-ASEAN Summit in Bali, and cancelled bilateral visits to Malaysia and Philippines. Predictably, skeptics cited his non-attendance as evidence the pivot was not working.
In fact, the U.S. debt-ceiling crisis in 2013 and the ongoing political debate in Washington about federal government spending raised questions about whether there was even funding for a military pivot to Asia. An assessment by the U.S. Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service on March 28, 2012, pointed to “a number of risks to the pivot,” including that “plans to restructure U.S. military deployments in Asia and minimize cuts in the Navy may run up against more restrictive funding constraints than plans yet assume.”
In a January 2014 interview, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, Commander, U.S. Pacific Air Forces, commented that the resources needed to support the “pivot” had not been forthcoming, both because operations were continuing in the Middle East and U.S. budget problems had led to cuts in defense that “make it actually incredibly hard to find places to pivot money to the Pacific.” Nonetheless, he admitted, U.S. Pacific Forces had been “protected a little bit” and “had operations and maintenance funded more than other folks.”
Subsequently, on March 4, 2014, the U.S Department of Defense published the Quadrennial Defense Review which stated the Department was “focused on preparing for the future by rebalancing our defense efforts in a period of increasing fiscal constraint.” The Review noted that the Department had already begun “absorbing significant impacts from the $487 billion, ten-year cut in spending due to caps instituted by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011. The BCA also instituted a … mechanism requiring cuts of about $50 billion annually.”
Commenting on the report, Katrina McFarland, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition said Defense was now reconsidering its pivot strategy in light of the budget pressures it faced. That same afternoon, however, she revised her comments to reflect Secretary of Defense Hagel’s remarks a week earlier that the shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific region required that Defense “adapt, innovate, and make difficult [budgetary and acquisition]decisions to ensure that our military remains ready and capable.” McFarland said that was precisely what they had done in the budget and therefore, “The rebalance to Asia can and will continue.”
A Substantive Debate
Aside from questions about actual implementation, from the start the very purpose and significance of the U.S. “pivot” have been much debated, and even controversial, beginning with its name. The Obama Administration subsequently preferred to call the “pivot” a “rebalancing” because allies and friends outside of Asia perceived a “pivot” as meaning the United States was turning its back on them. For example, Josef Joffe, editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, warned in Commentary in November 2012 that America’s shift away from Europe was an invitation for trouble, arguing that while the “core” of Europe was stable, the “fringes are brittle” and ‘the fact is that the Europeans are not up to the job themselves.”
The subsequent crisis in Ukraine, Russia’s seizure of Crimea, and Moscow’s support of Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine appear to have borne out Joffe’s concerns as Washington’s attention was once again diverted to the security of Europe. Meanwhile, the Israeli invasion of Gaza, continuing fighting in Syria and Iraq, and turmoil in Libya, among other Middle East problems, pose additional challenges for Washington.
Substantively, there has also been a wide range of views, both among foreign policy commentators and Asia countries themselves, about the advisability of the pivot. In April 2013 Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a fluent Mandarin speaker, described the Obama Administration’s renewed focus on Asia as “entirely appropriate,” arguing that “Without such a move, there was a danger that China, with its hard-line, realist view of international relations,” would conclude that an economically exhausted United States was losing its staying power in the Pacific.”
Even Henry Kissinger, while acknowledging in an interview in February 2014 that he was a “big fan” of China, said the U.S. pivot to Asia was “inevitable.” More recently, however, in an interview with the Asia Society on April 8, Kissinger called the so-called “pivot” more “slogan” than “substance” and questioned how significant the change had actually been. Friends in Asia, he asserted, upon hearing about a “pivot to Asia,” said to him, “We didn’t know you ever left.”
Others have seen the pivot as provocative and even dangerous. In December 2012 Boston College Professor Robert S. Ross argued in Foreign Affairs that the pivot was both unnecessary and counterproductive, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which U.S. policy “unnecessarily compounds Beijing’s insecurities and will only feed China’s aggressiveness, undermine regional stability, and decrease the possibility of cooperation between Beijing and Washington.” He alleged that “A strategy that was meant to check a rising China has sparked its combativeness and damaged its faith in cooperation.”
In contrast, Aaron L. Friedberg, a Princeton professor, in an October 2012 article in Foreign Affairs assessed that “The problem with the pivot is that to date it lacks serious substance. The actions it has entailed either have been merely symbolic, such as the pending deployment of a small number of U.S. Marines to Australia, or have involved simply the reallocation of existing air and naval assets from other theaters.”
In an even more biting critique of the Obama Administration’s policy toward Asia, Indian geo-strategist Brahma Chellaney argued as recently as May 1, 2014 that the pivot “has remained more rhetorical than real” and claimed that “Asian nations now harbor gnawing doubts about the reliability of the United States as a security shield.” Chellaney claimed that the U.S administration’s “feckless Asia policy has helped deepen these nations’ security dilemma on how to protect their territorial rights against an assertive, well-armed and authoritarian China that seeks to change facts on the ground slice by slice, salami style.”
In assessing the pivot, it is nonetheless important to note concrete measures the United States has adopted, beyond more frequent visits, to give substance to its renewed focus on Asia:
n On his first trip to Asia in November 2009, President Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and on December 14, 2009, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk notified Congress that President Obama planned to enter TPP negotiations. “with the objective of shaping a high-standard, broad-based regional pact” on trade.
n In July 2009, Secretary Clinton signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia which greatly enhanced U.S. political relations with ASEAN.
n In June 2010, the United States became the first non-ASEAN country to establish a dedicated Mission to ASEAN in Jakarta.
n At the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Hanoi on July 23, 2010, Secretary Clinton declared that peaceful, multilateral resolution of competing sovereignty claims to the South China Sea was a U.S. “national interest.”
n On September 19, 2011, the United States and Vietnam signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Advancing Bilateral Defense Cooperation.
n On November 16, 2011, President Obama announced an agreement with Australia to deploy on a rotational basis 2,500 Marines to Darwin, Australia to shore up alliances in Asia. Beijing accused Mr. Obama of escalating military tensions in the region.
n On January 13, 2012, the United States announced it would resume full diplomatic relations with Myanmar.
n On July 25, 2013, President Obama and Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang issued a joint statement on establishing a U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership.
n On February 5, 2014, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel, in testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said, “Under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features. Any use of the ‘nine-dash line’ by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law. The international community would welcome China to clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea.”
n On April 28, 2014, the United States and the Philippines signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a ten-year military pact between the two countries that allows the rotational basing of U.S. military forces and supplies on military bases throughout the Philippines.
n On August 4, 2014, U.S. Assistant Secretary Danny Russel said in a news briefing that Secretary of State John Kerry would press for a voluntary freeze on actions aggravating territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Russel said, “The regional economy is too important and too fragile for any country or any claimant to use the threat of military force or paramilitary force in retaliation, for intimidation, or as a coercive effort.” On August 9, at a meeting of ASEAN and other foreign ministers, China formally rejected the proposal.
PRC Reaction to the Pivot
The PRC has certainly taken the pivot seriously. In a comprehensive review of mainland reactions to the pivot in the Chinese Leadership Monitor on August 6, 21012, China scholar Michael D. Swaine found that the reaction in most authoritative Chinese commentaries was “restrained” but that “quasi-or non-authoritative sources” contained “explicit, direct criticism.” This criticism included charges that the pivot was “destabilizing to regional order, runs against prevailing international trends, and is an expression of a deliberate U.S. effort to counterbalance or contain China’s growing power and influence in Asia.”
In my view, however, the most telling evidence of the importance the PRC attached to U.S. rebalancing is that the official Xinhua News Agency named the pivot as the “number one world event” in 2012. By all accounts, it was not listed as number one because Beijing thought it was good news. By way of contrast, in the Associated Press’s annual poll of U.S. editors and news directors in 2012, the pivot was not mentioned and the only international news stories identified among the top ten were the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and the civil war in Syria.
Other Asian Reactions
The response of Asian neighbors has varied. As well-known cross-Strait expert Richard Bush put it in a speech at Bookings Institution on January 31, 2012, “different Asian states responded to American rebalancing in different ways.” Some like Japan and India welcomed it while others like Indonesia and Malaysia were more ambivalent, reflecting their concerns about the potential for increasing superpower competition and tensions in the region.
Asians are in a quandary. They have all, including China, generally prospered under the peace and stability American security has provided since the end of World War II. Most Asian countries recognize that the United States has no territorial ambitions in Asia, and that the presence of U.S. forces has been on balance wholly positive and benign, and also serves as a welcome counter-balance to domination of the region by China. At the same time, they have increasingly benefited from trade with China on which they are also increasingly economically dependent. They also fear the potential for conflict between China and the United States, as China’s military capability has markedly expanded and its posture toward territorial issues in the region has grown increasingly aggressive.
It is not surprising therefore that in a June 25, 2014 interview with Forbes magazine, President Ma Ying-jeou responded to a question about the proper role for the United States in the region and the U.S. pivot with a diplomatically balanced but generally positive answer: “The U.S. rebalance to Asia is, to many Asian nations, seen as something basically acceptable. Because these countries, to a greater or lesser extent, rely for their security on the US, but are also willing to deal with mainland China for economic reasons. So they hope to find a balance point between the U.S. and mainland China. As long as this works well, it is a net positive for the region.”
The Pivot Really Is About China
Secretary Clinton’s essay in Foreign Policy on “America’s Pacific Century, which introduced the policy of the pivot, was very carefully worded. Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, and Jeff Bader, Senior Director for Asia on the National Security Staff, certainly played a key role in framing the policy and writing the article. In the seven out of 52 paragraphs entirely devoted to China, Secretary Clinton explicitly denied seeing China as a threat, but also hinted at concerns about China.
“Some in our country see China’s progress as a threat to the United States; some in China worry that America seeks to constrain China’s growth. We reject both those views. The fact is that a thriving America is good for China and a thriving China is good for America. We both have much more to gain from cooperation than from conflict. But you cannot build a relationship on aspirations alone. It is up to both of us to more consistently translate positive words into effective cooperation — and, crucially, to meet our respective global responsibilities and obligations.”
In fact, of course, the pivot really is about China. China’s dramatic economic and military expansion is what has most changed in Asia over the past twenty years. In addition to her quest for cooperation therefore, Secretary Clinton also specifically noted all the problem areas in which bilateral cooperation is lacking, including: sustained, substantive and transparent military-to-military engagement, maritime security, cyber-security, fair and open trade, intellectual property protection, currency manipulation, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the South China Sea, and serious concerns about human rights.
Why the Concern about China?
In assessing the significance of the pivot, its staying power, and its implications for Taiwan, it is important to understand its origins in the Obama Administration’s dealings with China. Beyond the broader global geostrategic context of the pivot as Asia’s importance grew and China’s economic and military dominance increased, the U.S. rebalancing really started with a shift in U.S. attitudes that began with President Obama’s November 15-18, 2009 visit to Beijing.
The White House was clearly intent on avoiding the mistake of previous U.S. Presidents, Democrats and Republicans alike, who began on a negative footing with the Chinese leadership and then had to work their way back to a more constructive relationship. In 1980, Ronald Reagan criticized President Jimmy Carter’s for breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan, indicating he would reverse course, but as President he decided U.S.-China relations were a “strategic imperative” to balance the Soviet Union. In 1992, Bill Clinton as a Presidential candidate attacked Chinese leaders as the “butchers of Beijing,” but as President ultimately did not enforce the requirement that China improve its human rights record to gain “most favored nation” trading status. And he concluded a nine-day visit to China with a joint statement with the PRC committing the two countries to “building toward a constructive strategic relationship.” In 2000, George W. Bush criticized Clinton for treating China as a “strategic partner” rather than as a “strategic competitor.” After 9/11, however, he decided he needed Chinese cooperation.
It is clear from the recollections of those who served in the first-term of President Obama, that the Obama White House was intent on breaking this recurring pattern. They would start off with a positive attitude — even having President Obama avoid a meeting with the Dalai Lama — that they hoped would yield better bilateral cooperation.
They therefore embarked on President Obama’s first visit to Beijing on November 15-18 with great hopes for bilateral cooperation. In fact, however, President Obama came away from the visit with nothing. As the New York Times summarized the visit on November 17, 2009: “In six hours of meetings, at two dinners and during a stilted 30-minute news conference in which President Hu Jintao did not allow questions, President Obama was confronted, on his first visit, with a fast-rising China more willing to say no to the United States….The trip did more to showcase China’s ability to push back against outside pressure than it did to advance the main issues on Mr. Obama’s agenda, analysts said.”
Following the visit, a White House staffer reportedly said to an NSC colleague words to the effect of: “Well, if — as you say, we need Chinese cooperation on a broad range of global, regional, and economic issues, I guess we can conclude after this visit that we’re not going to make progress on any of them.” The 2009 Obama visit was in effect a sobering reminder of the difficulty of cooperating with China, especially a triumphalist China that had emerged unscathed from the 2007-08 global financial crisis and viewed the United States as a declining power.
The South China Sea and the Pivot
A second event which contributed to the pivot and a stronger overall U.S. policy toward the PRC was the subsequent March 2 – 4, 2010 visit to Beijing of Jeff Bader, then-Senior Director of Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, and James Steinberg, then-Deputy Secretary of State. Following the January 29 U.S. announcement of an arms sale to Taiwan worth US$ 6.4 billion, an angry China at first had cancelled the visit but then rescheduled it. By all accounts, it was a difficult visit. While the U.S. delegation wanted to discuss a range of issues, including Iran, North Korea, and climate change, all the PRC leaders reportedly wanted to talk about was Taiwan and in particular an end to U.S arms sales to Taiwan, with the clear indication that this was the necessary trade-off for what the U.S. wanted.
In addition, according to various media accounts, in meetings with State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, and Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, the U.S. representatives reportedly heard for the first time that China considered its sovereignty over the South China Sea as a “core interest,” putting it on a par with Taiwan and Tibet. What words were actually used has since been debated, but the clear impression was that China was elevating the priority it attached to its territorial claims in the South China Sea. Secretary Clinton reportedly heard a similar Chinese claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea from State Councilor Dai Bingguo at the second round of the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in May 2010.
ASEAN Regional Forum
Thus it was that when Secretary Clinton attended the ASEAN Regional Forum on July 23, 2010, the South China Sea was high on her agenda. The meeting turned out to be a turning point and another important contributing factor to the October announcement of the pivot. Beijing’s apparent effort to keep the South China Sea off the agenda failed when the first 11 participating Foreign Ministers all expressed their concerns about peace and stability in the South China Sea. Speaking next, Secretary Clinton stated that peaceful resolution of the territorial claims to the South China Sea was a U.S. “national interest.” Challenging the PRC position, the Secretary said “The United States supports a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants for resolving the various territorial disputes without coercion. We oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant.”
Secretary Clinton maintained that the United States had a “national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” She expressed support for the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and offered assistance “to facilitate initiatives and confidence-building measures consistent with the declaration.” While reaffirming the U.S. position of neutrality on competing territorial claims, she stated that “claimants should pursue their territorial claims and accompanying rights to maritime space in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
Although there is no publicly available transcript of the meeting, according to the always well-informed Bonnie Glaser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, based on comments of participants in the meeting, the clearly angry Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jie-chi left the meeting for about an hour. When he returned, he lashed out at Secretary Clinton as well as the other Ministers who had dared to talk about the South China Sea. He reminded the South East Asians of their economic ties to China and of the fact that China was big and they were small, and implicitly threatened the possibility that those ties could be broken.
More PRC Backlash
In a subsequent statement posted on China’s Foreign Ministry website entitled “Foreign Minister Yang Jie-chi Refutes Fallacies on the South China Sea Issue,” charged that Secretary Clinton had attacked China at the ARF meeting in an effort “designed to give the international community a wrong impression that the situation in the South China Sea is a cause for grave concern.”
At a press conference on July 30, 2010, China’s Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng reiterated that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands in the South China Sea and the nearby waters. On the eve of the ASEAN-US summit in New York in September, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, “We resolutely oppose any country which has no connection to the South China Sea getting involved in the dispute, and we oppose the internationalization, multilateralization or expansion of the issue. It cannot solve the problem, but can only make it more complicated.”
Subsequently, when Secretary Clinton visited Beijing September 4-5, she met with a number of key Chinese officials, including Foreign Minister Yang, but then-Vice President Xi Jinping abruptly canceled his meeting with her. Although the South China Sea was again on the agenda, no progress was made, as might have been expected from the negative stories and editorials that greeted Secretary Clinton’s arrival. The Global Times, which is affiliated with the ruling Communist Party, said in a September 4 editorial that Clinton’s diplomacy in the region had “fomented frictions between China and some surrounding countries,” and called on her to “reflect upon the deep harm she is bringing to the Sino-US relationship.”
Meanwhile, however, it is also clear that many Asian countries privately welcomed the tougher U.S. stance toward China. As Secretary Clinton recalled in an interview later cited in the New York Times on September 20, 2012, “Time and time again, I had leaders — I mean, I’m talking about the highest leaders — essentially say: ‘Thank goodness. Thank you. I’m so pleased you’re here. We were worried about America.’”
China Continues an Aggressive Maritime Policy
It was of course not only stronger PRC assertions about its claims to neighboring territorial seas that aroused regional and U.S. concerns, nor was it U.S. diplomacy that inspired the disputes. We should recall China seized the western Paracels from Vietnam in 1974 and Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1995.
Nonetheless, as early as November 4, 2002, Chinese and ASEAN foreign ministers had agreed on the a non-binding South China Sea code of conduct that Secretary Clinton had cited at the ARF meeting. This Code included undertaking “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
Despite these commitments, the Code of Conduct was subsequently ignored, and as China’s military and especially naval power greatly expanded, China continued to take provocative actions to bolster its maritime claims, including:
n By July 2012, China had erected a barrier to the entrance of the disputed Scarborough Shoal and Chinese government ships remain around the shoal and continue to turn away Filipino vessels. On January 22, 2013, the Republic of the Philippines took its territorial disputes with China to the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration based on stipulations in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China refused to participate.
n On November 23, 2013, the PRC unexpectedly established the “East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone” which includes the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands, and announced that it would require all aircraft entering the zone to file a flight plan and submit radio frequency or transponder information.
n On May 2, 2014, Vietnamese naval ships and Chinese vessels collided in the South China Sea as China set up an oil rig in an area to which both nations lay claim. On May 26, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank near the oil rig, after the Vietnamese boat was rammed by a Chinese vessel, an action that was caught on film. The dispute led to anti-Chinese protests and riots in Hanoi and elsewhere, both in Vietnam and abroad, from May 11 to July 6. On July 16, China — perhaps surprised by the vehemence of the Vietnamese reaction and apparently finding no oil — unexpectedly announced the rig’s work was finished and it was being removed.
n On August 4, a Chinese official announced “the Spratly Islands are China’s intrinsic territory, and what China does or doesn’t do is up to the Chinese government.”
n On August 7, China announced its plan to build lighthouses on five islands in the South China Sea. At least two of the designated islands appeared to be in waters also claimed by Vietnam.
n On August 9, at an ASEAN meeting in Myanmar, as noted earlier, China rejected Secretary Kerry’s call for a freeze on actions aggravating territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Taiwan’s Potential Strategic Role in the Pivot
The U.S. pivot to Asia is therefore principally about China, despite any denials to the contrary, but it is therefore necessarily also about Taiwan. Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, Taiwan doesn’t have much to say about the pivot and, publicly at least, the United States Government never talks about Taiwan in the context of the pivot. As cited earlier, President Ma has taken a nuanced but generally positive stance toward the pivot but it is not an issue he has addressed much in public.
Both Taiwan and the United States face a dilemma. Longstanding partners and friends, Taiwan and the United States are joined by common values and shared interests. They enjoy strong economic, trade, security, educational, and people-to-people ties, and close cooperation in many areas of endeavor.
Nonetheless, both sides feel constrained about what they say and what they do in their relationship, especially militarily. Concerned about maintaining its important relationship with China, the U.S. continues to refuse to sell or help Taiwan obtain many of the weapons — such as diesel electric submarines — it would need to significantly improve its self-defense capability. Meanwhile, Taiwan has vastly improved its relations with the PRC over the last six years and thus has become increasingly economically dependent on the mainland and bound by its cross-Strait relationship. At the same time, Taiwan’s military budget has declined year-by-year and President Ma’s clear defensive priority is maintaining a stable relationship with the mainland.
As early as the mid-16th Century, Europeans, beginning with the Portuguese, and then the Dutch and the Spanish, first noted Taiwan’s strategic location, and its strategic importance has only increased since then. General McArthur considered Taiwan, at the center of the Western Pacific rim, the linchpin of the first island chain in the defensive perimeter to be built against the spread of communism. For the PLA, it is just as important now as both a potential defensive and offensive asset. Taiwan is necessarily a top priority for both Chinese and U.S. military planners in the still unlikely event of a conflict, although this is a subject that does not receive much public attention.
It is not surprising therefore that some U.S. analysts have called attention to the significant strategic role that Taiwan could and should play in the U.S. pivot, economically, politically, and militarily. In an April 13, 2012 article in The Diplomat on “Why the U.S. Military Needs Taiwan,” Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao argued that “Taiwan’s future and U.S. interests in regional security are intimately related. Indeed, Taiwan is a core interest of the United States and has a pivotal role to play as an ad hoc coalition partner in [the Pentagon’s concepts]of Air-Sea Battle, Joint Operational Access…, and the strategic rebalancing in the Asia-Pacific.”
Similarly, in a July 2013 essay on “Taiwan’s Crucial Role in the US Pivot to Asia” in the American Enterprise Institute’s Asian Outlook, Michael Mazza noted that “Although Taiwan’s potential role in the U.S. pivot to Asia has been largely ignored, the island nation is uniquely poised to be an important partner in the security component of that effort.” Mazza argued that Taiwan could “contribute important cyber knowledge, communications capabilities and intelligence to US defense efforts in the Asia-Pacific region” and that the United States should help Taiwan “shore up its air and sea defenses so that it can assist in deterring potential Chinese aggression.”
Such views are certainly accurate. Their only drawback is that they appear unlikely to be implemented given current self-imposed constraints in both Taiwan and the United States. We should not underestimate the difficulty of undertaking intensified cooperation without PRC knowledge, intense opposition, and possible action.
Taiwan, China, and the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Dispute
Taiwan also faces some difficult contradictions in its policies toward settling Asian maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, which are a key aspect of the U.S. pivot to Asia. Most important, Taiwan shares with the PRC the same territorial claims in both seas, yet their manner of addressing these claims is very different in some respects.
President Ma Ying-Jeou has long been preoccupied with Taiwan’s sovereignty over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands. His 1981 doctoral thesis at Harvard was titled, “Trouble over Oily Waters: Legal Problems of Seabed Boundaries and Foreign Investments in the East China Sea,” and he has frequently noted in meetings his strong personal conviction that the Diaoyutai Islands belong to the Republic of China.
Nonetheless, President Ma proposed on August 5,2012an innovative five-point East China Sea Peace Initiative which urged all parties to: refrain from antagonistic actions; not abandon dialogue; observe international law; resolve disputes through peaceful means; and form a mechanism for exploring and developing resources on a cooperative basis.
Consistent with his initiative, on April 10, 2013, Taiwan reached a widely acclaimed fisheries agreement with Japan that should end clashes between Taiwanese fishermen and the Japanese authorities over fishing in the waters around Diaoyutai. While setting aside without prejudice their competing sovereignty claims, the agreement allows fishing vessels from both countries to operate in a large area within a designated zone without being subject to the jurisdiction of the other side, while a smaller area of the zone, where Japanese fishing vessels frequently operate, is under joint management by the two governments.
Taiwan’s diplomatic approach to settling the dispute — a settlement that angered Beijing — contrasted sharply with the mainland’s handling of the same dispute. Rather than developing a crisis prevention mechanism with Japan, China has persisted with aggressive naval and air patrols and Japan has responded in kind. As noted earlier, Beijing also announced on November 24, 2013, without any prior consultation, the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, including the disputed Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands, requiring all aircraft entering the zone to file a flight plan and other information before entering the zone, with the implicit threat of taking action if they did not.
Naval expert James R. Homes on April 15, 2013 in The Diplomat praised Taiwan for not siding with the mainland in handling the DIoyutai/Senkaku dispute. By signing an agreement with Japan, he observed, Taiwan favorably differentiated its behavior from that of China, showed it could behave in a mature and civilized manner, and also signaled its sovereign status by acting on its own.
A Taiwan-Philippine Fisheries Agreement
Meanwhile, Taiwan has also pursued a similar fisheries agreement with the Philippines to end frequent conflicts over fishing in one another’s claimed waters, including an incident on May 9, 2013 when the Philippine Coast shot and killed a Taiwanese fisherman. According to the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the agreement would stipulate no use of “force or violence” when patrolling fishing grounds, the establishment of a bilateral communication mechanism in the event of fishery incidents, and the release of detained fishermen as soon as possible. Although the agreement has not yet been formally assigned, its terms have reportedly already been put into practice. At the Asia Security Summit in Singapore on May 31, 2014, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel praised the joint diplomatic efforts of Taiwan and the Philippines to reach a peaceful, cooperative agreement. Indeed, Taiwan’s handling of its maritime disputes with both Japan and the Philippines has been entirely consistent with international law and contributed to fulfilling the goals of the U.S. pivot to Asia even if that was not the objective.
In contrast, as noted earlier, at an August 9, 2014 meeting with ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Myanmar, China rejected the Philippine proposal — which the U.S. and other ASEAN countries supported — for a freeze on perceived provocative acts, and appears unwilling to engage in any legally binding agreement. China has also refused to participate in the Philippines’ appeal to the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration for a ruling on disputed territories.
Taiwan, China, and the South China Sea
Unlike its handling of the East China Sea and its fishing dispute with the Philippines, Taiwan’s policy toward the South China Sea is more similar to that of China. As recently as May 9, 2014, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry reiterated its claim that “from the perspective of history, geography and international law,” the Republic of China’s “inherent territory extends to the Spratly (Nansha) Islands, Paracels, Macclesfield Bank (Zhongsha/Jhongsha Islands), and Pratas (Dongsha) Islands as well as their surrounding waters and respective seabed and subsoil.”
Both China and Taiwan claim in effect the entire South China Sea based on the so-called “nine-dash line” (nánhǎi jiǔduàn xiàn) first published in a map by the Republic of China on December 1,1947. PRC Premier Zhou Enlai later removed without explanation two of the dashes which had also incorporated the Gulf of Tonkin, reducing the total to nine. Neither China nor Taiwan has ever explained the justification or meaning of the map which lacks specific geographic coordinates, or how the dashes would be connected if they were to form a continuous line and how that would then affect the extent of the claimed territory in the South China Sea. The PRC submitted a map with the nine-dash lines to the UN on May 7, 2009, which then the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and even Indonesia (which doesn’t have a claim) all officially protested. The PRC also reportedly extended its claim in 2013 with a new ten-dash map, with the new dash to the east of Taiwan, incorporating Taiwan into China.
Taiwan’s handling of Taiping Island also resembles the PRC’s policies toward islands and shoals it has seized in the South China Sea. Among other actions in recent years, the PRC has established armed garrisons, radar and communication facilities, built artificial islands from the many sand shoals in the region, constructed piers, airstrips and other structures on islets, effectively dislodged the Philippine Coast Guard from Scarborough Reef, and until July 16, 2014 had unilaterally deployed and aggressively defended an oil rig in disputed waters with Vietnam. The PRC also has plans to build five lighthouses, and has warned about a future Chinese air identification zone covering the entire South China Sea.
By way of comparison, Taiwan only occupies Taiping Island, although it is the largest of the Spratly Islands and the only island in the South China Sea with its own source of fresh water. In November 1946 the ROC sent four Navy warships to secure islands in the South China Sea, and Taiping Island was named after one of the ships that reached it on December 12, 1946. Although Taiping is nearly 1000 miles from Kaohsiung, the ROC Government has reinforced it claim to the island since a permanent presence was first established in July 1956. An airport was finished in December 2007, a navigational antenna was completed in 2012, and in August 2013, the ROC government announced it would spend US$112 million to upgrade the island’s airstrip, and to construct a dock capable of allowing its 3,000-ton Coast Guard cutters to dock. In April 2011, Taiwan announced that the Marine Corps, rather than the Coast Guard, would once again be stationed on the island.
Taiwan Rejects Cross-Strait Cooperation on Territorial Issues
Despite the shared basis of China’s and Taiwan’s claims to the South China Sea and the similarities noted in their treatment of the territories they occupy, Taiwan has notably refused to cooperate with the PRC in pursuing their territorial claims. As recently as May 15, 2014, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) spokeswoman Wu Mei-hung, responding to a public proposal the previous day by the mainland’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said Taiwan’s government had reiterated its stance several times and the MAC had never changed its policy, of not working with China on the issue. The same day, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister David Lin also said Taiwan will not cooperate with China on territorial issues.
Instead, Wu said President Ma Ying-jeou’s 2012 East China Sea Peace Initiative could be expanded to cover areas of the South China Sea, including an agreed code of conduct and the possibility of all parties developing and sharing resources peacefully while reserving their separate claims of sovereignty. President Ma himself on August 5, 2014, the second anniversary of his East China Sea Peace Initiative, urged that the fisheries agreement with Japan serve as a framework for the peaceful resolution of territorial claims in the South China Sea.
There are, however, two major obstacles to applying the bilateral solutions reached with Japan and the Philippines to the South China Sea. The first is that there are overlapping multilateral claims to the South China Sea, making any negotiated agreement much more difficult.
Even more important, as Harvard University fellow Holly Morrow argued on August 4, 2014 in Foreign Policy, “It’s Not About the Oil — It’s About the Tiny Rocks.” Morrow makes the case there is really no way of knowing how much oil and gas lie below the South China Sea, but that one of the most definitive sources of information concluded there are probably few conventional oil and gas resources. Moreover, Morrow points out, China is a net energy-importer and therefore any addition to the world supply of fossil fuels lowers the price of those fuels for everyone, so ownership is not crucial: “Simply put, there are far easier ways to procure energy in the 21st century than occupying territory or starting conflicts with one’s neighbors.” Morrow pessimistically concludes that “China’s energy exploration efforts are about demonstrating sovereignty and control, and not vice versa.”
Taiwan Should Abandon the Nine-Dash Line
It is precisely because the territorial disputes over the South China Sea are so dangerous and so intractable that Taiwan should seriously consider abandoning its claims to the entire Sea based on the nine-dashes. The U.S. Government has already publicly proposed such a course of action for China. In testimony on “Maritime Disputes in East Asia,” before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific on February 5, 2014, Assistant Secretary Danny Russel stated that he wanted to “to reinforce the point that under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features. Any use of the ‘nine dash line’ by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law. The international community would welcome China to clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea.”
Following up on Russel’s testimony, Jeff Bader, former Senior Director for Asia at the National Security Council and now a Senior Fellow at Brookings, went further, recommending that the U.S. government “make clear to other claimants, and to other ASEAN countries like Singapore and Thailand, that we expect them to be public in their rejection of the nine-dash line under international law.” And specifically with regard to Taiwan, Bader recommended that the United States discuss with Taiwan “whether it can clarify its position on the nine-dash line, to make clear that its claims are consistent with UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”
Bonnie Glaser, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on April 15, 2014 also recommended that Taiwan consider “a proactive approach to defusing tensions in the South China Sea … by elucidating the meaning of the nine-dash line and bringing its maritime claims into conformity with international law, especially the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)… [which]requires that maritime claims must be derived from land features.”
More recently, on August 4, 2014, Patrick Cronin, Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, proposed “A Bold Maritime Strategy for Taiwan.” Cronin noted that despite President Ma’s creative peace proposals, “Taiwan’s voice has largely been ignored.” Cronin argued that because Beijing is unlikely to alter its coercive policies to settle maritime disputes, Taiwan has an opportunity to “elevate its own voice and ideas for preventing conflict.” Like those already cited, he recommends that Taiwan should “redefine Taiwan’s maritime claims, not on the basis of historical rights but on the basis of contemporary international law.” Cronin also proposes that President Ma should “courageously announce a moratorium on infrastructure development of Itu Aba [Taiping] in the Spratly Islands,” thereby “aligning Taiwan with the recent U.S. call for a freeze on new infrastructure.” At the same time, Cronin would like to see a strong Taiwan commitment to its own defense, including an asymmetric defense strategy that in fact the U.S. military has been recommending for several years.
There is already some domestic political support in Taiwan for such an approach. Joseph (Jau-shieh) Wu, Secretary General of the Democratic Progressive Party, in a May 14, 2014 article in The Diplomat on “The Future of U.S.-Taiwan Relations” advocated that Taiwan “should make it clear that it follows the UN Convention on the Law of Sea, article 121 specifically, in defining its territorial claims based on the actual ownership of Itu Aba (Taiping islet) and adheres to the principle of the freedom of navigation.”
By undertaking such bold initiative toward the South China Sea, Taiwan would:
— Align its national policy with international law;
— publicly call attention to its role and its stake in the outcome of the territorial dispute;
— enhance its status and proclaim its sovereignty among Asian states;
— differentiate again its approach from Beijing’s aggressive and purely self-serving policies, and possibly put pressure on Beijing to take a more constructive approach;
— reinforce its reputation already established with Japan and the Philippines as a peacemaker rather than a troublemaker; and in the process of doing so,
— assume a major role in and make a significant contribution to achieving the key goals of the U.S. pivot to Asia which is fundamentally intended to maintain and foster continued peace, stability, security, and prosperity in Asia.
The United States, however, also needs to assist in supporting a Taiwan initiative to base its territorial claims in the South China Sea on international law. Many observers have pointed out that the most important way would be for the U.S. Senate to finally ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. As Jeff Bader put it, “this would give the U.S. legal and moral standing to participate more actively and effectively in decisions on the future of the South China Sea….We should put our money where our mouth is.”
Other Measures the United States Should Undertake
The United States also bears a responsibility to support Taiwan’s role in the U.S. pivot to Asia in other ways. To begin with, the United States should end its silence about the positive role Taiwan can and should take. At a minimum, it makes no sense to call on China to abandon the nine-dash line in asserting its claims to the entire South China Sea and not call on Taiwan explicitly to do so as well.
There is also no point in continued U.S. skittishness about Beijing’s sensitivities. Beijing has been quite frank that it believes the U.S. has no business involving itself in the South China Sea, or in Asia for that matter. On May 21, 2014 in Shanghai, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a new “Asia Security Concept” which would exclude anyone outside of Asia. China doesn’t like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It would like the United States to halt “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea; halt so-called “interference” in cross-Strait relations; end arms sales to Taiwan; and lift limits on technology transfers to China. In effect, the U.S. should get out of Asia and both concede to, and facilitate, the strategic dominance of the PRC in Asia. This is what China means by the new type of “strategic relationship” it wants with the United States.
There is no point in denying that the U.S. and Chinese visions of Asia are fundamentally at odds. It is therefore encouraging therefore to see a tougher tone in what top Obama Adminstration officials say about China. The Chinese don’t believe U.S. rhetoric to the contrary in any case. While the United States needs to maintain a civil tone in its diplomatic exchanges, must cooperate where it can, and avoid making its friends in Asia who fear Chinese wrath more anxious, the United States also needs to continue to be very clear about its values and its interests in Asia.
Those U.S. values and interests require that the United States more actively demonstrate its support for Taiwan. The two most important areas where the United States needs to do more are in defense cooperation and trade. Progress in both areas certainly also requires efforts on Taiwan’s part. Increased defense cooperation depends to an important extent on a stronger Taiwan commitment to its defense budget. An improved trading relationship requires greater liberalization of Taiwan’s markets.
Nonetheless, the United States should be much more proactive. After all, there has always been a political component in most U.S. decisions about which countries — such as Israel, Morocco, Australia, and Korea — it has chosen to negotiate free trade agreements. It is in the U.S. economic and strategic interest to bring Taiwan into the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If that is too difficult given the U.S. partners on whom China can exert pressure, the United States should seek a separate bilateral free trade agreement with Taiwan, perhaps beginning with a bilateral investment agreement.
In an interview with the Taipei-based Business Weekly (商業週刊) on June 19, 2014, even former Secretary of State Clinton expressed concern that overdependence on mainland China might cost Taiwan its “independence.”Clinton stated, “Taiwan is at a turning point now. You will have to decide how dependent economically you want to become,” warning about possible vulnerabilities and “unintended consequences.” While acknowledging that it was “understandable and appropriate for Taiwan to forge relations with China,” and that the United States was committed to its “One China Policy,” she also affirmed that the United States has been “willing to support Taiwan in many ways against China’s objections and we will continue to do so.”
One of the means of support is defense cooperation. A secure Taiwan is a principal requirement of a stable and secure Asia. The United States must do more to get Taiwan the weapons it seeds for self-defense, especially asymmetric defense systems like submarines and improved missile technology. More frequent and higher-level military dialogue is also required. More broadly, the United States must continue to strengthen its military ties with other Asian allies and friends, including India.
PRC Increasingly Seen by Many Asians as a Threat
Even in the absence of the U.S. pivot, China’s increasingly aggressive zero-sum drive for hegemony in Asia has yielded a counter-balancing effect, driving countries like Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam closer to the United States and in some cases to one another, and altering the attitudes and policy calculations of neighbors. The growing perception of China as a threat was evident in the Pew Research Survey on Global Attitudes published on July 14, 2014. The survey showed that China’s rising power “generates its own anxieties.” Among the eight countries surveyed — China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam — “majorities in each country said they were concerned that territorial disputes between China and its neighboring countries could lead to a military conflict.” In the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea and India, more than 70% said this was a concern, as did 67% of Americans and 62% of Chinese. The number of those concerned was especially high in four countries: 93% of Filipinos, 85% of Japanese, 84% of Vietnamese, and 83% of South Koreans. Clearly, from the perspective of “soft power,” China’s policies toward the region are not working. Unfortunately, Taiwan was not included in the Pew Survey, just as it has not been included in the U.S. pivot.
The U.S. pivot to Asia was inevitable and necessary. Despite criticism of its purpose, effectiveness, and staying power, it has accomplished more than is generally acknowledged. Most Asian countries have welcomed increased U.S. attention, and involvement, and reassurance. The pivot is really a response to the rise of a China to economic and especially military preeminence in the region. The potentially dangerous consequences of this rise are most clearly evident in the PRC’s aggressive policies in pursuit of its territorial claims to the South China Sea.
Taiwan is rarely mentioned in the context of the U.S. pivot but it can and should play a major role. Taiwan’s economic importance, strategic significance, longstanding friendship with the United States, and its own territorial claims in the East and South China Sea all require its involvement in achieving the goals of peace, security, and prosperity that the U.S. pivot is intended to maintain and foster. Taiwan has already provided an ideal model of how Asia neighbors should interact in its negotiated settlements of fishing disputes with Japan and the Philippines. Taiwan should again lead the way by basing its claims to South China Sea territories on international law rather than the ROC’s unexplained 1947 “nine-dash” map.
Taiwan also needs to do more to bolster its own self-defense and to liberalize its economy. The latter would facilitate entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or failing that, eventually a possible free-trade agreement with the United States. The United States in turn should ensure ratification in the U.S. Senate of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, increase its support for Taiwan’s self-defense, and make greater efforts to help Taiwan enter the TPP or a similar bilateral agreement with the U.S. Such measures would serve the interests of both countries and help fulfill the promise of the U.S. pivot to Asia.