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The Honolulu Advertiser

By Richard Halloran

Posted on: Sunday, January 24, 2010

Taiwan leader 'gets it,' retired U.S. admiral says

 • Marine was 'gentle spirit'

Just after Adm. Timothy Keating retired from the Navy as head of U.S. Pacific Command, the largest of America's combatant forces, he climbed into a civilian airplane and flew to Taiwan, the self-governing island that he had been forbidden to visit while on active duty.

The admiral and his wife, Wanda Lee, who were guests of the government of Taiwan, did a bit of sightseeing. Then he embarked on a three-day round of meetings with President Ma Ying-jeou, other senior officials and top officers of Taiwan's armed forces.

As serving officers, Keating and other American admirals and generals have been prohibited by successive administrations in Washington from traveling to Taiwan out of deference to the political sensitivities of leaders in China, who claim sovereignty over the island. The reaction in Beijing to any hint of American support for Taiwan has ranged from indignant to belligerent.

Those restrictions, plus the absence of diplomatic relations between Taipei and Washington and the lack of robust military relations that U.S. armed forces experience in many other nations, make firsthand observations of officers such as Keating all the more useful. He has reported them to Pacific Command and the Pentagon.

"The leaders I met in Taipei repeatedly expressed a desire to see senior U.S. active duty military officers and high level diplomats come visit Taiwan to see for themselves," Keating said by telephone from his home in Virginia. He was in Taiwan last month.

The centerpiece of his visit was the meeting with President Ma, who spoke in English. "President Ma 'gets it,' " Keating said, "with a longer range and wider view of the opportunities for statesmanship across the strait." He added: "I was surprised at the lack of rancor in discussions about China and Taiwan."

When Ma took office in May, 2008, he set policy on China as "no unification, no independence, and no use of force." The first of those "three no's" meant Taiwan would continue its self-governing status quo. The second meant Taiwan would not provoke China by declaring independence while the third called on Beijing to renounce its military threat to Taiwan.

Keating said he came home convinced that "there has to be a way to resolve this dispute. We should continue to seek a solution." He suggested, however, that he did not have a proposal.

Ma told Keating that he saw a need for four parties to resolve the 60-year-old dispute, according to U.S. officers: The government in Beijing, which wants to control Taiwan, and the U.S. government because the Taiwan Relations Act that requires the U.S. to help the people of Taiwan to determine their own future.

The third party was, obviously, the government in Taiwan. The fourth, the president said, would be Taiwan's opposition parties that must have a say if a lasting solution is to be found. Meantime, however, the admiral said government and people of Taiwan "are acutely aware of the armaments 80 to 120 miles away," across the Taiwan Strait. China has been reported as having 1,500 missiles aimed at targets all over Taiwan. "It's a mismatch," Keating said, with the Taiwanese lacking a similar force. "But they are hardly shaking in their boots."

The admiral seemed impressed with Taiwan's forces. "I went aboard a submarine they had acquired from the U.S. after World War II. She was immaculate. I was taken aboard a frigate of which any U.S. commanding officer would have been immensely proud."

But he expressed mild dissatisfaction with the U.S. diplomatic delegation in Taipei. "The American Institute in Taiwan is like an embassy except our people there don't fly the American flag. That's something that should be reconsidered."