By Gerald Giam
If the People’s Republic of China decides to take Taiwan by force, the US will fight on behalf of Taiwan against the Mainland, said a former US ambassador.
Chase Untermeyer, who just completed his tour as ambassador to Qatar and is on his way back to the US, made these personal comments on Tuesday at a public lecture on “US policy in the Middle East” at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which was attended by about 80 government officials, foreign diplomats, academics and students.
The ambassador used the Cross Strait example to illustrate the importance the US government — in his opinion — places on the principles of democracy and freedom in making its foreign policy decisions. He pointed out that successive US administrations had made decisions to enter military conflicts not simply out of national interests or detailed calculations of the costs and benefits of entering the wars, but based on deep seated principles that are “as old as the US itself”.
Untermeyer cautioned that many countries would be mistaken if they think the US conducted its foreign affairs solely on hard-nosed pragmatism, like securing oil supplies.
Defending democratic principles
In the case of an invasion of Taiwan by China, Untermeyer believes that the US will fight China not because of treaty obligations or even out of national interest, but based on its principles to defend its democratic allies against aggression. (The US‘ Taiwan Relations Act obliges the US to supply Taiwan with the military capability to defend itself.)
Untermeyer assessed that even if a war with China is detrimental to US economic interests, the US will still aid Taiwan if the Chinese invasion goes against the will of the Taiwanese people.
Attempting to debunk the common perception that the US is interested in the Middle East only for its oil and enriching its own oil companies, Untermeyer argued that if that were so, the US would have never created the State of Israel, knowing the unpopularity of that move in a region dominated by Arab countries. The US depends on the Middle East for a quarter of its oil supplies. He said that the European Union is much more dependent on Arab oil and therefore sees the Middle East through the prism of energy security much more than the US does.
On the powerful Jewish lobby in the US influencing foreign policy in the Middle East, Untermeyer explained that Jews made up only five per cent of the US population, and that Jews alone would not be able to influence US policy that much.
In fact, he said, the pro-Israel lobby in the US is powerful not just because of Jewish support, but because it fights for a “broadly popular cause” subscribed to by a wide spectrum of American citizens, including conservative Christians.
On Iraq, Untermeyer predicted a gradual reduction in troop numbers over the next year following a much anticipated report to Congress next month by the US ambassador to Iraq, but that it would not go “down to zero”.
Touching on Iran, he was convinced that Islamic republic is in the process of developing a nuclear bomb and the capability to deliver it on missiles. By removing Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the US had unfortunately removed the a heavy counterweight to Iran, which is a far more threatening member of the “Axis of Evil” than Iraq was.
Untermeyer was sceptical that a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will resolve all the problems the US is having in the region, although he emphasised that the US should help “solve it for its own sake”.
Cautioning that since any final settlement will involve large compromises by both sides (the Israelis and the Palestinians), he expected that right wing and jihadist groups would still seize upon any compromises that did not favour the Palestinian side to whip up sentiment against the US.
Voicing his personal disagreement with the policies of the current US administration, Untermeyer said that he did not “see anything wrong with dealing with Syria” rather than isolating them, which is the current Administration’s policy. He pointed out that isolation and sanctions have never been effective ways to change undemocratic regimes — Cuba being the most prominent example.
China and Pakistan
During the question and answer session, a student from China, referring to Untermeyer’s statement about defending Taiwan, pointed out that the island has been an integral part of China for far longer than the US has been nation. He asked Untermeyer what the US would do if one of its own states broke away.
Untermeyer refused to be drawn into the Chinese student’s analogy, instead repeating that the US will fight based on its own principles of defending democracy, rather than historic precedent or economic interest.
An Indian student then queried how the US could spring to democratic Taiwan‘s defence, yet cosy up with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew a democratically elected government. Untermeyer acknowledged that Pakistan presented a whole slew of policy difficulties for the US, but that the US saw Musharraf as “our man” for now in no small part because of the threat of Al Qaeda.
Untermeyer admitted that there were many examples of US actions that contradicted this assessment. However, he pointed out that even pragmatists like former secretary of state Henry Kissinger conceded that the principled, values-based approach to foreign policy will in the long run prevail over an approach based purely on hard nosed pragmatism and selfish national interests.
Gerald is an e-business consultant and a former Ministry Of Foreign Affairs officer. All opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect Singapore’s stand on issues.
Gerald keeps a blog here.