The Taiwan Arms Decision
Sunday, March 25, 2001
AN AMBITIOUS annual weapons shopping list from Taiwan is forcing the Bush administration to define its China policy before, perhaps, the new team is entirely ready. China's Communist government has been pressing hard: A decision to sell some of the more advanced items could lead to all kinds of trouble, it says, while restraining Taiwan could open the door to cooperation between Beijing and the new administration. Chinese officials are particularly upset at the idea of America selling Taiwan a warship with a sophisticated radar system known as Aegis. It seems to us, though, that the important question is not whether to sell the Aegis. What matters, first, is to get the principles right.
And the first principle must be that Taiwan has a right to defend itself. No one can seriously believe that Taiwan (population 22 million) would contemplate attacking mainland China (population 1.27 billion), so China's claims of vulnerability are preposterous. China objects to the weapon sales because it wants Taiwan to remain vulnerable to bullying and, if it comes to that, attack. This is not an ambition the United States has any reason to indulge.
By the same token, the United States should make clear that it will assist Taiwan in resisting Chinese aggression. The point is not to be inflammatory; a public declaration may not be the best way to make the point. The Bush administration should make clear to Taiwan, as have past administrations, that it will not support a declaration of independence or other provocative actions. But there should be no ambiguity about the potential U.S. response to an attack from the mainland. The best way to deter a conflict, which certainly the United States does not want, is to be clear in advance about the consequences.
A third principle is that the United States should seek to cooperate where possible with China. It should make clear, as President Bush said last week, that it wishes China no harm, and that support for Taiwan does not mean enmity toward China. A growing Chinese economy, gradually opening to the world, which Chinese leaders proclaim as their goal, is likewise in the U.S. interest.
The administration should decide which weapons to sell according to military, not political, criteria. Some analysts argue that Taiwan needs Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with the Aegis radar systems to defend against China's gradually growing navy and, eventually, as part of a defense against the ballistic missiles China has deployed in growing numbers along the strait facing Taiwan. Others say Taiwan could better use its limited defense dollars on cheaper systems that can be delivered more quickly.
One military fact is indisputable: Even if the administration were to agree to the sale of Aegis-equipped destroyers, Taiwan would not receive them for six to eight years, which would do little to help with the current missile threat. As a practical matter, the United States might help Taiwan more by increasing its training and cooperation with Taipei's relatively isolated military. Though the United States should not withhold weapons systems simply because China objects, it should not sell them simply to show that it is willing to stand up to the Chinese.
The United States has never supported independence for Taiwan, and the Bush administration is not proposing to do so now. But it also cannot support China's claims that, because it views Taiwan as a renegade province, it is entitled to occupy it by force if it chooses. Taiwan has evolved into a prosperous democracy. If it is to join with China someday, it must be by the will of its people, not under duress. Such a voluntary marriage seems feasible only if China someday follows Taiwan's path toward democracy. The U.S. goal in the meantime must be a supple but strong diplomacy that leaves no doubt about its support for Taiwanese self-determination.