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Defending Taiwan

Asian Wall Street Journal

March 14, 2001

A U.S. Senate report just out recommends selling Aegis destroyers to Taiwan, as well as other sophisticated weapons systems. China is already getting a campaign into gear to lobby against the sale, and if the White House does decide to go ahead next month, it's sure to make relations with Beijing stormy for a spell. However, that in itself is no argument against the sale. The Bush administration would do well to set out a marker that it won't continue its predecessor's practice of placating China.

However, the arms-for-Taiwan issue is more complex than that. There's a danger that the decision will be oversimplified by some U.S. conservatives down to an either-or proposition: Either America sells the island democracy the best that money can buy, or sells it down the river to the Chinese. In fact, what the U.S. needs to do is to sell Taiwan arms that it can use effectively, and it also needs to shore up the island's defenses in more intangible ways. Moreover, steering this correct, middle way could give China incentives to stick to peaceful means for seeking reunification.

Taiwan's military currently has an edge over the People's Liberation Army in both weapons and training. There are 100 miles of sea separating the two sides, and China doesn't yet have the means to gain air superiority, let alone land a Normandy-scale invasion force. But it is working on these problems, and sometime in the next decade it could begin to pose a true challenge to Taiwan. In the meantime, it has the option of wrecking the island's economy by launching missile attacks or mounting a naval blockade.

The U.S. has an obligation under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide adequate weapons so the island can defend itself. Two of the key Chinese threats are ballistic missiles and submarines. For both, the U.S. should sell more of the weapons Taiwan needs to neutralize the Chinese threat.

The PLA has about 250 relatively inaccurate missiles stationed along the coast opposite Taiwan, and it is adding more at a rate of more than 50 a year. These could be used against Taiwan's airfields as part of an all-out attack, or they could be targeted at cities as a form of psychological warfare. The U.S. has already provided some lower-tier missile defense by selling the second-generation Patriot and transferring technology for Taiwan's own Sky Bow, in return for Taiwan abandoning efforts to develop ballistic missiles. The U.S. should now offer Taiwan the third-generation of Patriots.

China's Russian-built Kilo-class submarines are patrolling the Taiwan Strait, and the island's defenses against this threat are limited. The U.S. should not only sell Taiwan antisubmarine planes, but it should allow other countries to sell diesel subs to Taiwan. This has been ruled out in the past because subs are classed as offensive weapons, a distinction that has never made much sense.

But the best weaponry in the world won't matter without first-rate armed forces to use them. And here Taiwan could also use some help. Right now, it is largely a conscript army led by mainlanders who fled to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek. New President Chen Shui-bian, a native Taiwanese, has the delicate job of localizing the military and updating its doctrines. For this important task he could use increased contact with U.S. forces.

When the U.S. and other countries switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing, military-to-military links were cut back drastically. Taiwan has been isolated for so long that it missed out on many advances that would allow it to use its forces to greater effect. For instance, rivalries between the air force, navy and army mean that it hasn't perfected joint-force operations. Command and control is another weak spot. And there is a shortage of well-trained officers who could operate sophisticated weapons systems like the Aegis.

President Chen, who as a legislator served on the defense committee and has studied the subject, has already begun to chip away at these problems. He changed the island's defense strategy from engaging Chinese forces on the beaches to fighting them at sea and in the air. This will reverse the overemphasis on the army, a legacy of the days of Generalissimo Chiang, when the Kuomintang maintained massive land forces for the hoped-for invasion of the mainland.

The question then is whether Taiwan is ready to spend a huge proportion of its acquisitions budget in coming years on Aegis destroyers. They could play a useful role in missile defense, because they are capable of tracking and intercepting multiple missiles. But on the negative side, integrating these high-tech systems would require tremendous resources, and protecting them after they take up their role in the Taiwan Strait will pose more challenges.

One idea might be for the Bush administration to postpone a decision on Aegis. It could tell the Chinese it will watch the buildup of missiles on the Fujian coast and predicate future sales on the state of the military balance. Aegis would be sold if it appears China wants to use missiles to overwhelm Taiwanese defenses. This would give China an incentive not to give free rein to the PLA hardliners who are driving this arms race. Of course, such an ultimatum would rely on U.S. credibility, which has been run down by the Clinton administration. But this would be a chance for President Bush to rebuild that credibility in the face of Chinese bluster.

The U.S. cannot afford to let a newly democratic Taiwan be bullied into any settlement with China that its people do not accept. Preserving Taiwan's political options means bolstering its defenses as long as China refuses to renounce the use of force. Hardware is important to that task, but software is just as critical. President Chen Shui-bian has shown himself to be a moderate and responsible partner for the U.S. in this effort. Only by opening new ties between the two militaries can Taiwan be prepared for the high-tech weaponry that it may need to acquire in the years ahead.