By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - A recent New York Times op-ed article by Paul Kane, a former international security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, has hit a raw nerve. Kane called on United States President Barack Obama to end military support for Taiwan in exchange for China forgiving the US$1.14 trillion of American debt it currently holds.
"With a single bold act, President Obama could correct the country's course, help assure his re-election, and preserve our children's future," Kane baffled his readers.
As absurd the plea appears, and although the author has since declared his op-ed a satire, it seems the idea was not as fanciful as it seemed.
In recent months, the pros of abandoning Taiwan for the sake of better US-China relations have been increasingly and frankly addressed in US academic circles, while moves by the Obama administration have also taken that direction. The actual "selling" of long-time ally Taiwan to China remains a bizarre thought, but a different wind has been blowing from Washington towards Taipei recently.
Two months have passed since the Obama administration announced its decision to deny Taipei's request for new F-16 fighter jets. Back then, many observers took the rejection as a sign that Washington had begun kow-towing to Beijing over Taiwan, and that it would eventually do likewise in other regional rows involving China. However, recent developments belie this notion.
Obama last week announced a new security agreement with Australia, which will deploy US Marines Corps, naval ships and aircraft in the north of that country. In the same breath he declared the US military would make a presence and missions in the Asia-Pacific region its top priority.
Obama furthermore brought into focus increased US naval ship visits and training in the Philippines and Singapore, cooperation with Indonesia to fight piracy and with Thailand for disaster relief and also surprised by emphasizing India's role in the region's security. The US president moreover vowed military support for the Philippines, announced that he would sell F-16C/Ds to Indonesia - the very type of fighter jets he denies Taiwan - and even reaches out to Myanmar, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton due to visit the country next month.
While it's abundantly clear that all these gestures signal a significant hardening in US policy towards China as Obama seeks winning over the region, Taiwan is conspicuous by its absence in his speeches.
There was also a notable omission by Clinton. In a lengthy and important commentary on Asia she wrote for the influential Foreign Policy's November issue she discussed all significant Asian countries for the US, but no Taiwan.
Critics of Kane's op-ed, which called for "closed-door negotiations with Chinese leaders to write off the US$1.14 trillion of American debt currently held by China in exchange for a deal to end American military assistance and arms sales to Taiwan and terminate the current United States-Taiwan defense arrangement by 2015", argued that no US government should ever consider such a deal.
They said the suggestion that the US would sacrifice a free and democratic Taiwan to an undemocratic, authoritarian China was akin to suggesting that the US ditch Israel to gain favors from the Arab world and avoid a confrontation with Iran.
They also said Kane was advocating that Obama "sell his soul, and America's along with it". Others recalled that the last time the US tried to abandon Taiwan - in 1979 when Jimmy Carter switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing - the island began trying to get its hands on nuclear weapons.
To grasp the idea behind Kane's proposal, Asia Times Online interviewed John Copper, a Stanley J Buckman professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Copper said that while Kane's piece comes across as rather radical and absurd, it fits with articles in liberal media and academic publications of late that have suggested that Obama boost his electoral chances by abandoning Taiwan.
"Kane, like writers of the other articles that call upon Washington to dump Taiwan, perceives, no doubt correctly, that president Obama despises Taiwan," Copper said.
Copper alleges that Obama personally has little interest in this part of the world. "As an uber-liberal president, Barack Obama doesn't care for Asians who he sees as traditional and conservative. He has had little interaction with the Asia region notwithstanding its huge importance."
Copper explained why he believed Obama in particular disliked Taiwan, "Democrats believe that George W Bush liked and supported Taiwan - despite him having had serious problems with president Chen Shui-bian. [Republican] Senator John McCain, during the 2008 campaign, pledged he would come to Taiwan's aid if need be and employ the US military to do so. Also that Taiwan is governed by the 'right-wing' Nationalist Party, or KMT [Kuomintang], makes Obama not liking Taiwan."
Copper cited evidence that he says suggests Obama would prefer to get rid of the island.
"Shortly after his inauguration, President Obama proposed talks between top military brass from China and Taiwan. As it was US policy up to that time not to pressure Taiwan or to mediate in China-Taiwan relations, many observers took Obama's action as favoring unification on China's terms."
Copper recalled that in 2009, Obama, during his first visit to China, mentioned the three communiques that served as a basis for US-China relations. "All of them favor China over Taiwan. He did not mention the Taiwan Relations Act, which favors Taiwan and has higher legal status than those communiques."
According to Copper, the proposed US-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement with Taiwan has become a dead issue during Obama's term. That for the past two years, Obama has sent no top official to Taiwan and Taiwan was not been mentioned in any speech by a top official on Asia policy must also be taken as clear indicators, Copper said.
The emergence of Kane's opinion piece is therefore something consequential, Copper holds. "Kane is no doubt aware of some or most of this."
Another observer of Taiwanese affairs disagrees. Gerrit van der Wees of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, a Washington-based advocacy group that promotes Taiwanese independence, says Kane's op-ed lacks substance, and that the author wrote about something on which he has no clue.
"It is such an outrageous article by someone who seems totally unfamiliar with the issues involved," Van der Wees told Asia Times Online. "As a marine who fought in Iraq, Mr Kane should have shown some more sense."