Sunday, August 17, 2008

Georgia and Taiwan

It is fascinating, and instructive, to compare the U.S. actions, responses and machinations in Georgia with Taiwan. Both are relatively small countries, American clients, located next door to a powerful neighbor that Washington considers a rival.

Both Georgia and Taiwan were once part of those neighboring states. Georgia was absorbed into the Soviet Union a few years after the 1917 revolution; Taiwan was a part of the Republic of China for four years after the end of World War II, until the Kuomintang was exiled there after losing the Chinese Civil War.

Mainland China still considers Taiwan an integral part of its national territory. To my knowledge, Russia does not make similar claims to Georgia as a whole, although it clearly does not recognize the same boundaries that the rest of the world also recognizes.

Both countries are democracies, or so I assume. Certainly, Taiwan’s democracy is well established, as it has, with last March’s presidential election, made two peaceful changes of power between the Kuomintang and its rival the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and now back to the Kuomintang.

Beijing despised former Taiwan president Chen Siu-bian and his predecessor Lee Teng-hui, just as Moscow obviously hates Georgia’s current president Mikhiel Saaskashvili, not necessarily because they were popularly elected but because they were, in Taiwan’s case anti-China, and in Georgia’s case anti-Russia.

Washington has encouraged Georgia’s ambition to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) despite Moscow’s determined opposition. Yet it has discouraged Taiwan’s desire to join the United Nations under the name Taiwan or the Republic of China.

The parallels could go on except in one important respect – Washington’s attitude. While the U.S. has seemingly encouraged and perhaps even egged Georgia on, it has, under President George W Bush, discouraged any action by Taiwan that might lead to a confrontation with China.

During most of Bush’s years in office, Taiwan was led by President Chen Sui-bian of the DPP, which is formally committed to de jure independence from China. Chen has never gone that far but has consistently irritated both Washington and Beijing with proposals for referenda on Taiwan’s formal relationship with the mainland and other provocations.

When Bush came into office nearly eight years ago, he proclaimed that the U.S. would “do whatever it takes” to preserve Taiwan’s de facto independence from China, which was consistent with conservative and Republican Party thinking for decades. His administration quickly authorized sales of modern submarines, anti-missile batteries and patrol planes worth about $18 billion.

But the administration soon soured on Chen as Taipei’s lowered its defense spending in the face of China’s rising expenditures on modern armaments. Repeatedly, the Taiwan Legislature refused to appropriate the funds necessary to purchase the authorized armaments, even as the price was steadily lowered.

Moreover, the administration often felt compelled to rein in Taiwan’s president from making any moves toward declaring de jure independence or other provocative actions such as holding a referendum to change the regime’s official name from the Republic of China to Taiwan, often using blunt language. That stands in marked contrast to the way Washington supposedly led Georgia’s president to believe that the U.S. would come to its defense no matter what it did.

This was true even though Taiwan is far more defensible than Georgia. It is separated from the mainland by 90 miles of the Strait of Taiwan; it has much larger and more armed forces despite years of declining defense expenditures, and it is readily accessible to an American show of force or outright protection from naval bases nearby.

That was clear at the last “crisis” in the Strait in 1994 when China aimed ballistic missile just off Taiwan’s northern shore in “exercises” designed to intimidate Taiwanese from voting for the pro-independence party. Since then Beijing has learned that a policy of reconciliation pays more benefits than intimidation across the Strait.

Both Washington and Beijing welcomed the election of Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang Party in March’s presidential polls, since the party is far less confrontational. That could be seen in the hospitality extended Ma in Los Angeles recently as he stopped over on the way to Paraguay to attend that country’s presidential inauguration (Paraguay is one of about two dozen countries that have formal relations with Taiwan). The administration let Chen stay cooped up in his aircraft on the tarmac in Alaska.


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