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For U.S. and Taiwan, weapons deal will mean closer military cooperation

Wednesday, April 25, 2001

By Jason Dean Staff reporter of the Wall Street Journal

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- For all the focus on heavy-duty hardware in the latest U.S. weapons package offered to Taiwan, the offer's real significance may lie in something less attention-grabbing: Closer ties between the militaries of the U.S. and Taiwan.

China and Taiwan reacted largely as expected Tuesday to the news that the U.S. had agreed to supply Taiwan with weapons ranging from four Kidd-class destroyers to 12 submarine-hunting aircraft and as many as eight diesel submarines, but not the much sought-after destroyers equipped with Aegis radar.

In Beijing, the official response was angry but measured, and underscored China's growing frustration with the Bush administration over a range of continuing disputes. Foreign-ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue criticized the U.S. decision, urged Washington to "exercise prudence" and hinted at unspecified reprisals. China "reserves the right to take action on this issue," Ms. Zhang told reporters.

Lawmakers in Taiwan welcomed the announcement, but some expressed frustration over the decision to defer the sale of Aegis-equipped destroyers. "It's not entirely satisfying, but it is acceptable," said Chen Chung-shin, a member of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party who is chairman of the legislature's defense committee.

In fact, the offer is certain to bring the two sides' militaries closer together, in order to integrate the relatively advanced weapons into the island's outdated force structure, analysts say. Such contacts "don't get headlines, they don't involve billion-dollar contracts to defense companies, but they're very valuable," says David Shlapak, a defense analyst at the Rand Corp. who wrote a report last year on military scenarios across the Taiwan Strait.

For example, if Taiwan does choose to buy the eight diesel submarines included in the U.S. offer, it will need to build an entire submarine warfare force and a base to hold it from almost scratch. Taiwan now has just four outdated submarines, two of which are used only for training. Likewise, Taiwan would need intensive training and technical support to fly the 12 P-3 submarine-hunting planes the U.S. has said it would sell.

And while overt cooperation, such as joint military exercises, is still unlikely, the U.S. could agree to increased exchanges of a lower profile, perhaps allowing more Taiwan officers to study at U.S. military institutions or sending U.S. teams to Taiwan for assessments. "This package will force us to have more concrete and detailed dialogues with our U.S. counterparts," says Alexander Huang, vice president of the Chinese Eurasian Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Taipei.

The increased trust between the Taiwan and U.S. militaries has given U.S. experts greater clout in Taiwan on issues as mundane as reinforcing military bases with concrete to make them more resistant to attack. That could have as significant an impact on the cross-straits security balance as the details of any arms deal.

-- Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this article.