DN - Defence Notes

Ten recommendations for Taiwan-US mil relations

30th January 2017 - 01:01 GMT | by Wendell Minnick in Taipei


Taiwan fears becoming the golden peanut between two rogue elephants, said one Taiwan-based defence analyst, referring to the risk that the island will be caught between power plays by the US and China. 

The metaphor was obvious after listening to concerns voiced by those attending Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense’s (MND) annual Chinese New Year media banquet on 23 January. 

Statements and actions by President Donald Trump and his inner circle have created confliction inside Taipei’s defence community. These include Trump’s support for Taiwan’s defence, openly calling into question the legitimacy of the US government’s One China policy, and the prearranged congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen to newly elected Trump. 

MND sources were particularly unnerved by speculative media reports that the US might request the right to use Taiwan military bases for future contingency operations, particularly after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte began making anti-US statements and endangering military relations.

All of this has enraged Beijing. 

Ministry sources, including one official during the banquet, expressed concern that the status quo would be compromised and lead to violence in the Taiwan Strait. Turning Taiwan, an island of 24 million people and roughly the size of West Virginia, into a political football between two military goliaths made many MND officials nervous. 

The real question is, is there a way to improve military relations between Taiwan and the US without setting the region on fire?

Shephard canvassed Taiwan defence analysts, former US and Taiwanese military officials, and defence industry sources, and came up with a list of ten recommendations. Minor tweaks to US policy on Taiwan military relations could serve as force multipliers later without starting a war.

First, allow US flag officers to observe the annual Han Kuang military exercises. The tri-service Han Kuang is divided into a command post exercise with a computer-simulated war game followed by a field training exercise. At present, only military officers ranked no higher than colonel who are assigned to the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto US embassy there, can attend. In the absence of an active-duty flag officer, normally a former US Pacific Commander attends, e.g. retired Adm Dennis Blair in 2003. 

Second, allow Taiwan’s air force to participate in Red Flag, an advanced aerial combat training exercise, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Though Taiwan has a small unit of F-16A/B fighters at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona for training, it is not permitted to participate in Red Flag. The Luke unit, dubbed the 21st ‘Gamblers’ Fighter Squadron, has been assigned there since 1996. 

Third, allow Taiwan’s navy to participate in the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise. RIMPAC is the largest naval exercise in the world, and it is run by the US Pacific Command. At present, Taiwan does not participate in any international maritime exercises due to pressure from China.

Fourth, control ‘Track 1.5’ activities. Since 1979, when the US switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, there has been a steady stream of former US government officials and Washington think-tankers going to Taipei and receiving VIP treatment at the dignitary level, including meetings with the president.

Limousines and five-star hotels only fuel the egomania and cause problems between AIT and Taiwan’s government over policy issues. A former AIT official said delegations from the US government are dubbed Track 1 and non-government are Track 2, but due to Taiwan’s quasi-government status with Washington, a fuzzy ‘Track 1.5’ has been invented over the years by those inflating their importance. The only person authorised to meet with the Taiwan president, at a minimum, is the AIT director on policy issues, not a representative of a think tank pushing a less-than-transparent agenda, he said.

Fifth, allow US and Taiwan military personnel the right to wear their uniforms in public. This would include the right to fly the national flag at their respective diplomatic offices and invite respective government officials to official events such as independence day celebrations at their diplomatic compounds. 

Sixth, the US should initiate a re-subordination of the US State Department Office of Taiwan Coordination as a direct reporting agency under the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. This is not really a defence issue, said one former US Pentagon official, ‘But the Taiwan coordination staff has generally been subordinate to a deputy assistant secretary of state with a heavy China slant.’ The idea is to raise the office level to report directly to the assistant secretary.

Seventh, to facilitate more senior level engagement, including regularised travel to Taiwan, dual hatting of selected assistant and deputy assistant secretaries within the US State Department and Pentagon as AIT associates or consultants would improve communications. 

At present, assistant and deputy assistant secretaries are not allowed to travel to Taiwan due to the perception that such visits connote an official relationship. If they are explicitly dual hatted as AIT-Washington senior associates, then they would travel to Taiwan under this title. The same is true for one- and two-star general and flag officers.

Eighth, consideration could be given to the initiation of a formal high-level consultation on people-to-people exchanges (CPE). The annual China-US CPE was established in 2010 as a mechanism to boost bilateral partnership on a variety of issues. The US and Taiwan do not engage in any type of CPE at present.

Ninth, allow the US military and other government security services permission to train Taiwanese military officers on a larger scale than previously allowed. At present, Taiwanese officers are allowed to attend US military academies and training programmes in small numbers, including the F-16 air combat programme at Luke Air Force Base and special operations training with US Rangers, SEALS and Green Berets. However, platoon- or battalion-level training is restricted. 

When Taiwan’s National Security Bureau had to retrain its presidential security guard after the unsuccessful 2004 assassination attempt on President Chen Shui-bian, the US Secret Service was blocked from providing training and, instead, the task was given to North Carolina-based Blackwater. 

Tenth, Trump’s administration should clear the deck on outstanding US Congressional notifications for arms sales. These include the following: AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) designed to target ground radar facilities from fighter aircraft; an upgrade for the SLQ-32 shipboard electronic warfare suite; and the Quickstrike family of aircraft-deployed mines, such as Mk 62/500lb, Mk 63/1,000lb and Mk 65/2,300lb shallow-water mines for depths of 90m. 

The White House should also allow for the release of commercial export licences and/or technical assistance agreements needed by Taiwan to build indigenous submarines, Aegis-type destroyers, fighter training aircraft and long-range cruise missiles.

Though these ten recommendations might enrage Beijing, there are other more upsetting items on the horizon that would drive China over the edge. 

One is the prospect that Taiwan will request procurement of the F-35 fighter. Taiwanese military sources indicate that the air force will soon have a requirement to procure 60 F-35B short take-off/vertical landing fighters and 150 F-35A conventional fighters to replace ageing Mirage 2000s, Indigenous Defence Fighters and F-5 Tigers. 

The US released a $3.4 billion upgrade programme for Taiwan’s 144 remaining F-16A/B Block 20 fighters, but withheld its request for 66 new F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters, citing Beijing’s threats that the sale would be a red line.

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