TAIPEI, Taiwan – TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan will maintain a robust defense to deal with a possible Chinese attack, a senior official said Tuesday in the first Defense Ministry comment since the president's contentious statement that the island would never seek U.S. help to defend itself.
Vice Defense Minister Chao Shih-chang's comment came amid a firestorm of criticism from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party over President Ma Ying-jeou's remarks, which were broadcast April 30 during an interview on CNN.
The remarks appeared to many in the opposition to represent a fundamental shift in more than 30 years of Taiwanese defense policy, which has been grounded on the assumption that the United States could come to Taiwan's aid if China attacked.
The policy has come into sharper focus in recent years as a Chinese military buildup has increased the possibility that Taiwan might not be able to withstand a Chinese attack on its own.
But others believe that Ma really meant to underscore his administration's success in diminishing tensions with China — a development, he believes, that reduced to near zero the possibility that the U.S. might be caught up in a cross-strait conflict.
While Washington transferred its recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979, it remains the island's most important foreign partner, providing it with most of its weapons systems. It has also hinted that it could come to Taiwan's aid if China attacked.
In his remarks to CNN, Ma said that Taiwan would continue to seek defensive weapons from the U.S. However, he said, "we will never ask the Americans to fight for Taiwan."
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Chao refused to say whether he saw Ma's remarks as signaling a shift in defense policy, but insisted that Taiwan's military will always work to keep the island safe.
"No matter how cross-strait relations change, our military will never change its stand on bolstering its capabilities and maintaining national security," Chao told reporters in Taipei.
China and Taiwan split amid civil war in 1949. Beijing continues to claim the island as part of its territory and has threatened to invade if Taiwan moves to make its de facto independence permanent.
China has also reserved the right to attack if foreign forces intervene in the island's affairs — such as when the U.S. sent an aircraft carrier to the region in 1995 and 1996 after China fired missiles in the Taiwan Strait to underscore its opposition to Taiwan's first direct presidential election.
One consequence of Ma's remarks appears to put the United States on notice that a reprise of that action — which did not lead to an attack — would be unwelcome, not only by China, but also by Ma's government.
Christopher Kavanagh, a spokesman with the de facto U.S. Embassy in Taiwan, did not comment directly on Ma's remark, but praised his efforts to reduce tension in the area.
"We believe continued cross-Strait dialogue furthers regional peace, stability and prosperity," he said. "We hope these efforts continue."
Ma's remarks on CNN came in the context of rapidly improving relations between Taiwan and China. Since coming into office two years ago, Ma has moved aggressively to lower tensions amid closer economic ties, and declarations in favor of a formal end to hostilities with Beijing.
However, some tensions still persist. China has an estimated 1,300 missiles aimed at Taiwanese targets, and has refused to consider renouncing the use of force in dealing with the island.
Military analyst Alexander Huang of Taipei's Tamkang University said that despite Ma's remarks, Taiwan's relations with Washington will remain strong.
"My observation is that they do not mean a fundamental doctrinal change," he said. "I think Taiwan has consistently maintained strong security relations with the U.S. This will not be changed by one interview."
U.S. officials have generally poured cold water on the possibility that improved relations between China and Taiwan could lead to a diminution of America's strategic position in the western Pacific — a claim made by Ma's detractors.
Last March, Raymond Burghardt, the top U.S. official dealing with Taipei, denied that American strategic planners view the island as part of an anti-China defensive perimeter that also includes mainland Japan and Okinawa.
"I have never heard it in a policy discussion, and I have never seen it in a policy document," he said.