Sunday, January 23, 2005

Time for a return of the "China Marines" Only this time to Taiwan!

In the late 1920’s, a detachment of Marines was sent to Shanghai and Peiping to help safeguard the areas of those cities that were controlled by the Western powers. The upheaval in China, and the warfare between the Chinese Communists and the Chinese Nationalists threatened the interests of the West, and required the services of the Marines. The Marines who drew this duty came to be called the “China Marines.” Now, history repeats. Once again, the descendents of the Chinese Nationalists on Taiwan and the Chinese Communists in Beijing are in conflict, and this conflict threatens vital US interests. It is time for a bold response to the threat China poses to Taiwan. It will soon be time to get the USMC out of Japan, and it is definitely time for a return of the China Marines.

The US Marine Corps’ position in Japan is becoming increasingly untenable. Three developments make it clear that US forces will leave Japan in the near future.

1) The North Korea situation, which is the major rationale for keeping troops in Japan, appears to be reaching the end-game. North Korea claims it has nuclear weapons, and has made threats against the US and our allies. President Bush does not respond passively to threats and is not inclined to appease tyrants like Kim Jong Il. In the near future, given the gathering threat, there is a real possibility that President Bush will offer North Korea an ultimatum, disarm or face regime change. However that situation resolves, either with a verifiably disarmed North Korea or North Korea’s defeat, the Japanese will call for reduction or elimination of United States military presence in the Land of the Rising Sun.

2) China, on the other hand, represents a threat that must be countered over the long term. China perceives that it is in competition with the US economically, politically, and militarily. The military competition has both an operational component with regards to Taiwan, and a strategic component, in the PRC’s goal to create a blue-water navy to challenge the US in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The US cannot afford to ignore the threat China represents to Eastern Asia. For many countries in this region, the looming threat of China is more tangible than the threat of Islamic terrorism. China is taking advantage of the United States’ preoccupation with the wars in Western Asia to increase the pressure on the small democracies in the Far East.

3) Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has made it clear that he demands continuous re-appraisal of the old ways of doing business to see if those old ways conform to new realities. The elimination of North Korea as a threat and the emergence of China as a larger threat will challenge the notion that Japan is the best place for the bulk of America’s Asia presence. The center of gravity of the threat in Eastern Asia will move away from the Korean peninsula south along the Chinese coast. The Marine Corps should anticipate this migration and move in concert to counter it.

Already, the Department of Defense is eyeing various Pacific destinations for this expected redeployment. Guam is high on the list, as are the Philippines, Australia, Singapore and even Vietnam. However, there is one place that is conspicuously absent. It is the one place where US troops could do the most good to counter the growing PRC threat. It is a place with a friendly, pro-Western government that would welcome US troops and which has deep water ports, ample airspace for fixed wing fighter training, billeting areas for troops and a high standard of living for families. That place is Taiwan.

There are four reasons to at least begin the planning to relocate Marine forces to Taiwan.

1) China is the United States’ strategic competitor. America must have forces in the Western Pacific to thwart China’s hegemonistic designs in the hemisphere. Taiwan offers the best strategic location of any of the countries or sites being considered for relocation of US forces. Many of China’s tactical and operational targets can be struck from Taiwan by F/A-18’s carrying only one additional fuel tank. Taiwan is a huge, unsinkable aircraft carrier permanently moored 130 miles from China. America and the Marine Corps should be prepared to make full use of this asset to counter China.

2) Taiwan is a natural ally to the United States. It has a democratic government and has undergone a peaceful transition of power between different political parties. It has a liberal understanding of human rights, and has full suffrage for adult women. Taiwan has unequivocally supported the US war on terror, and would send troops anywhere in the world in any number if the US would only ask. The US could ask for no better ally in the region or for that matter, in all the world.
I make this point to contrast Taiwan with Vietnam, a country that shares some of the geographical advantages of Taiwan but which is saddled with some serious political disadvantages. Perhaps most notable of these disadvantages is that communist dictatorship’s appalling human rights record at home and its antipathy towards the US in the UN and other international bodies.

3) Taiwan requires protection. Taiwan has a robust military, but is under pressure by the Communist People’s Liberation Army that continues to grow in quality and lethality. China also threatens Taiwan with missiles that are little more than instruments of terror, which are, for that purpose, fulfilling their mission. The people here are afraid. Taiwan’s business community talks euphemistically about the “uncertainty” hanging over Taiwan that effects business decisions. What these Taiwanese people really mean is that people are afraid China will successfully invade Taiwan while Taiwan’s erstwhile friend, the US, sits by. Taiwan’s economy, and consequently, all of Asia’s (including, ironically, China’s) would skyrocket with news that the Marines are relocating to the “Beautiful Island.” Taiwan’s defense would be assured. Business people who would otherwise have fled to China to hedge their bets about a Communist take over would again direct their capital towards Taiwan and towards satisfying the US market.

4) Taiwan can accommodate all the Marine forces currently arrayed throughout Japan. Taiwan has a number of army and Marine bases both on the main island of Taiwan and on the outlying islands of Kinmen, Matsu and the Pescadores. Taiwan has four deep-water ports capable of supporting the new LPD class of amphibious ship. If you picture Taiwan as a clock, there are deep water ports at 12 o’clock(Keelung), 3 o’clock(Hualien), 6 o’clock (Kaoshiung) and 9 o’clock (Taichung). There are 15 airfields with runways longer that 8000 feet to accommodate Taiwan’s 4th generation fighter aircraft. Any one of these airfields after a little modification and the erection of some family housing units could support the relocation of MAG 12 from Iwakuni. And regarding quality of life in Taiwan, this place is superior to Japan. The cost of living and off-base recreation is more reasonable, virtually everyone speaks a passable amount of English, and the people of Taiwan genuinely appreciate Americans. By objective measure, the Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) Index of the US dollar shows that you get much bigger bang for your buck in Taiwan than in Japan.

So what is stopping the Department of Defense and the Marine Corps from strengthening ties with Taiwan? There are three obstacles.

1) US State Department’s preference tilts towards China’s interests and therefore the diplomats at State attempt to thwart any initiative that would tend to strengthen US-Taiwan cooperation.

2) The Department of Defense has adopted an overly restrained and out-moded interpretation of the “Taiwan Relations Act (TRA),” the legislation that governs US-Taiwan diplomacy.

3) Fear.

The State Department under then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger spearheaded the opening of Communist China in the early 1970’s. Crucial to dealing with the Communists was for the US to explicitly acknowledge the existence of “one China.” In other words, it was necessary for the US to say that Taiwan was a part of China. Such a statement may have been of strategic necessity during the Cold War, but the State Department has taken this thirty year old semantic construction of “one China,” and continues to run with it. Since the 1970’s, the State Department has done its utmost to keep China satisfied with numerous communiqués and papers which adhere to the principle that there is only one China. To this interpretation, the Defense Department defers. The only problem with this formula is that there are in reality two Chinas. There is a China which is ruled by a brutal Communist dictatorship bent on regional hegemony and which has pointed over 500 missiles at Taiwan. And there is Taiwan, which is a peaceful democracy that is bullied by its overweening neighbor.

Although the State Department has not always seen China clearly, the Congress has. So, when President Carter ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, the Congress passed the “Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).” This law essentially says that the United States will continue contact with Taiwan in the absence of formal diplomatic relations through a new entity called the American Institute. Additionally, the TRA provides that the US would ensure that Taiwan has adequate means for defense. Section 3302 of the act says:

The United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.

Taiwan's defense needs shall include review by United States military authorities in connection with recommendations to the President and the Congress.
Nothing in the TRA forbids planning for troop deployments, or even, deploying troops to Taiwan. Planning for and deploying Marines to Taiwan certainly falls within the scope of “defense services” performed by “military authorities.”

Regardless of the plain language of the statute, preceding Administrations have listened to State Department interpretations of the TRA, and have placed unreasonable restrictions on mil-to-mil contacts and military planning efforts. It is time for the Marine Corps and our smart JAG lawyers to write some aggressive briefs proposing a return to the plain text of the TRA and supporting some forward-leaning planning to expedite the move of Japan-based Marines to Taiwan.
Finally, there is the fear of China. Anytime the United States and Taiwan make any constructive moves towards one another, China responds with belligerent rhetoric and threatening actions. Many in Taiwan and the West fear that should the US offer overt support for Taiwan’s defense, such as by preparing plans to move the Marines to Taiwan, then China will choose that moment to launch an attack. But that begs the question; when is an aggressor more likely to attack a small country? When the aggressor calculates that there is a chance the United States will not respond? Or when the aggressor is GUARANTEED that the US is planning to respond and WILL respond to such an attack?

It is time for the planning organizations of the Marine Corps to step up and prepare for the new realities that are fast approaching in Asia. American once responded to a crisis in Asia by creating the “China Marines.” Now, it is time to stand up the “Taiwan Marines.”