Far Eastern Economic Review
{short description of image}

Wrong Signals

Washington caves in to China on destroyers for Taiwan

May 4, 2000

The Clinton Administration thinks selling Aegis destroyers to Taiwan would be "provocative." Forgive us, but just who's been doing all the provocation in the region? Taiwan, which in three weeks will see the first Chinese democratic change in leadership in 4,000 years of recorded history? Or Beijing, the communist regime known to shoot off missiles in a state of pique? Democratic nations usually don't endanger stability.

Beyond that, stability also is measured by one side's ability to adequately protect itself against the other--a question of balance. Today, that balance is being tipped in Beijing's favour, toward the belligerent party. For now, Taiwan still has an edge against the firepower amassed against it, but that won't last if it fails to secure hardware to counter the arsenal Beijing is accumulating. Already, the mainland has 200 missiles aimed at Taipei, with the ability to add about 50 more each year. And it has a navy that it is steadily upgrading, such as with the purchase of two 8,000-tonne Sovremenny destroyers from Russia. Against all this and more, Taiwan has a fleet of rusting submarines that might have come straight out of a World War II movie and scant defences against the communists' own submarines.

Beijing's demand against arming Taiwan--to which Washington has now acquiesced--is particularly galling given that it will brook no interference in its own military build-up, such as its intention to buy an Israeli airborne warning system. What it wants it must get, and no one can have a say. But what its opponent wants--to counter Beijing raising the ante--is, well, provocation.

Washington's inability to say "no" to Beijing must disappoint America's friends in Taipei. More disturbingly, though, it raises questions whether Washington understands that a Beijing that perceives of a weaker Taiwan leaves the region at greater risk of conflict. Peace is a matter of one side's ability to give the potential aggressor second thoughts. Care to speculate on what Beijing now thinks?