August 4, 2008 | Op-ed

Paying Tribute

From the time of the Shang dynasty, the rulers of neighboring states in contact with the Middle Kingdom (or their representatives) were expected to appear at the Chinese court for elaborately staged ceremonies. There, the Chinese emperor demonstrated the harmony of their world while the visitors presented him with token tribute. The great Sinologist John K. Fairbank pointed out more than sixty ago that the tribute received was often of little pecuniary gain to the Chinese, since its value was usually balanced, if not outweighed, by the gifts the envoys received and the cost of their entertainment. The motivation of the imperial court was largely domestic, as Fairbank noted:

The ruler of China claimed the mandate of Heaven to rule all mankind. If the rest of mankind did not acknowledge him, how long could he expect China to do so? Tribute had prestige value in the government of China, where prestige was an all-important tool of government.

Given these stakes, Doug Bandow was right to argue last week that now that the games have been awarded to Beijing, the potential costs of a boycott would be staggering, no matter how deplorable its human-rights record. Such a move would be interpreted as an affront to the government of the People’s Republic of China. Perhaps the Bush administration accepted Beijing’s invitation with almost undo haste, rather than leveraging the value of the president’s presence in exchange for concessions on other matters. But once the United States sent in its RSVP last year, there was never a realistic expectation of a presidential no-show at Friday’s pageant in the new National Stadium.

Historically the tributary system was also a diplomatic medium, the privileged framework for Chinese foreign relations, with the intrinsic value—or lack thereof—of the objects they presented both indicating and setting the balance of power in the Far East. Consequently, the negotiations over the gift to be proffered could be exhaustive, with envoys sometimes detained for months outside the imperial capital at a special hostel. In the current cycle of this age-old ritual, Mr. Bush won’t be kept waiting, but what sort of gift bundle the American president will be bearing remains very much a mystery.

One item at issue is an $11 billion defense package for Taiwan—including Patriot missile-defense systems, antisubmarine-warfare aircraft, Apache helicopters, Kidd-class destroyers, diesel-electric submarines, and a command, control and communication system. In 2001, the Bush administration proposed to sell these items as part of the American obligation under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to help the island defend itself. Unfortunately, Taiwanese politics delayed the purchase. But the money has now been approved, as has a further $5 billion for sixty-six F-16 C/D fighters that the ROC desperately needs to modernize its outdated air forces. What’s been holding things up for more than a year now is the Bush administration itself. Two weeks ago, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, while denying that arms sales to Taiwan had been frozen, admitted that the “interagency process” was still ongoing and a final decision had yet to be made.

One does not have to agree with former–Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton’s recent assertion that the Bush administration’s foreign policy is “in total intellectual collapse” to question the rationality of its ill-disguised foot-dragging on helping Taipei maintain its defenses. At a time when the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army are rapidly expanding, the delicate cross-strait balance is being jeopardized. Not only will the effective suspension of arms sales undermine the balance of power, it will also increase the burden on the United States, because Washington must make up for the gap in the security capacity of the East Asian democracies, which depend on an overstretched U.S. military. More ominously, should American forces ever have to intervene in a cross-strait “unification” scenario, they will be at a disadvantage.

It can only be hoped that the delay to date has been an astute diplomatic stratagem to avoid bruising the face that Beijing’s contemporary mandarins are striving to present in advance of their Olympic show and that, after the president and his fellow spectators have trooped away from the festivities, the sales will be allowed to quietly proceed. But time is running out. Under law, Congress must be given notice thirty legislative days before any sale; with the election year, that deadline is barely a month away. Moreover, under the rules of Taiwan’s democratic constitution, the budget authority to make the purchases that was so painstakingly won is set to expire at the end of this year and would have to be legislated all over again.

If, after running for office eight years ago on a platform that pledged to “honor our promises to the people of Taiwan” by “the timely sale of defensive arms to enhance Taiwan’s security,” President Bush leaves office with the defense package in limbo, then what will be clear is that the gift he presents this week is not merely symbolic acknowledgment of China’s standing in the world. Instead, substantive tribute will be paid in the coin of America’s credibility and strategic interests across Asia—for years to come.