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Why Taiwan Needs The Aegis System

Tuesday, April 17, 2001

The consequences of an outbreak of war across the Taiwan Strait are almost too terrible to contemplate. Such a conflict would not only devastate Taiwan but also dash China's hopes for continued economic growth and prosperity. It would in all likelihood embroil the United States and other powers of the Asia-Pacific.

That is why the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush should sell Taiwan the Aegis battle management and Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile systems, both of which the island needs to deter China's aggression. For both the U.S. and Taiwan, and for China's sake too, this is small price to pay for peace.

In March 1996, during Taiwan's first direct presidential vote, China's attempt to force unification with the island on its own terms was thwarted by two U.S. aircraft carrier groups. But in the wake of that crisis Chinese leaders came to believe that by targeting Taiwan with an increasing number of M-9 and M-11 ballistic missiles they could either coerce the island into submission or prevail in a shooting war. In the last four years, amid steadily increasing military budgets and a major overall arms buildup, the People's Liberation Army has deployed more than 300 of these short-range missiles along the mainland coast and is adding some 50 M-9 missiles per year to the arsenal.

China's strategic intention is clear: use the missiles as an instrument of coercion to intimidate Taiwan's 23 million people into succumbing to unification on Beijing's terms. Alternately, the PLA could launch pre-emptive missile strikes against Taiwan, knocking out or paralyzing command, control, communications and computer systems before the island and its allies could respond. This is a lesson many militaries, including China's, learned from watching the high-tech battles in Kosovo and the Persian Gulf. The PLA might also attempt to follow up with a repeat of the 1967 Six-Day War, during which Israel destroyed Egyptian fighters as they sat on the runways of their air bases in the opening phase of the conflict.

Hoping that the first battle would be the end of any cross-Strait war, the Chinese leadership's temptation to resort to a pre-emptive missile strike is therefore likely to be irresistible -- unless Taiwan has the means to counter it. Although it could take more than five to eight years to install, the Aegis is the best possible deterrence to a Chinese missile blitzkrieg.

And because the Aegis is mobile, fitted on Arleigh Burke class destroyers, and can track more than 100 missiles, aircraft, surface vessels or submarines at a time, it can also serve as a backup military command-and-control system if Taiwan's main system was destroyed. That would enable Taiwan's armed forces to continue a fight by themselves, if they had to. The Patriot PAC-3 system would provide added missile-interceptor protection.

The need for these systems has become more acute over the past several years since Beijing has also added to its growing forces Russian-made Sovremenny destroyers, new Kilo-class submarines and Russian-made Su-27 and Su-30 warplanes. These combined have been deployed to threaten Taiwan's naval fleet, whose key role is to protect the island from attack and prevent any shipping lane blockade.

When conquest is perceived to be easy, appeals to reason or pleas for negotiated settlements will go unheeded. If the leadership in Beijing believes it can launch a pre-emptive missile strike with impunity, it will be more likely to take the plunge, especially with its missiles stockpiled. If Taiwan has an anti-missile defense system capable of intercepting most of China's incoming missiles, China will think twice and peace may prevail long enough to give both sides time enough to reach a negotiated settlement on their relationship that benefits all.

China has opposed U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as a matter of "principle." Rhetoric notwithstanding, Beijing appears to care little about whether Taiwan wastes its precious money to acquire expensive weapons that are useless against its M-9 and M-11 missiles. But China is bitterly opposed to the sale of missile-defense systems, especially the Aegis. Why? Because the Aegis will frustrate Beijing's plan to terrorize and coerce, and in a worse case cripple or destroy completely Taiwan's critical command and control centers and other critical military assets such as its force of advanced jet fighters. The idea is to pull off a fait accompli and therefore dissuade any third party from intervening.

There are skeptics who say Taiwan cannot afford the Aegis and PAC-3. A single destroyer in the Aegis system is estimated to cost $1 billion per ship. But citing the cost is a misleading and simplistic argument. First, Taiwan's defense budget accounts for about 3% of its gross national product--a tolerable burden and low by international standards. And second, peace is priceless. If the Aegis and PAC 3 deter China from actions that could precipitate or ignite a cross-Strait war, then the investment would be well worth it.

Moreover, some people have questioned Taiwan's ability to operate the Aegis system. But this concern is groundless. After an inspection last year, Pentagon officials concluded that Taiwan's navy is well able to man and maintain sophisticated battle management systems such as the Aegis.

There are others who counsel the sale of "some weapons," but not the Aegis to Taiwan. They say the sale of the Aegis is too provocative, that it will upset Beijing and spark an arms race. This, too, is a false argument. The M-9 and M-11 missiles are offensive weapons, whereas the PAC-3 and the Aegis are purely defensive systems. The latter can only intercept incoming missiles in the air; they cannot direct missiles and other weapons to strike land targets in China. The deployment of defensive weapons has never precipitated an arms race, although the utilization of offensive weapons has.

Deterring China from the use of force is in the best interest of all parties who want to keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait, including China's Communist leaders. That peace will be preserved if Taipei is able to maintain a credible deterrent force, if Washington is willing to enforce its insistence that Beijing settle its differences with Taipei peacefully, and if all three carefully manage vital yet vague political symbols. Much is at stake in how they balance, for example, Beijing's "one-China" policy against Taiwan's "special state-to-state relations" formula, or Washington's "three nos" against Taiwan's quest for membership in international organizations.

Given the paramount importance of preserving peace in the Strait, the sale of weapons appropriate for Taiwan's self-defense should take precedence over the sale of weapons acceptable only to Beijing. The Aegis and PAC-3 are the right weapons because they are the maximum, and therefore most credible, deterrence.

Ultimately, China and Taiwan should settle their differences through a peaceful, evolutionary process, entered into mutually and voluntarily, that results in an outcome acceptable to both. But China's deployment of missiles targeting Taiwan is a form of blackmail that makes such a process impossible. The least the U.S. can do is sell Taiwan the weapons it needs, like the Aegis, to defend itself. Nothing else will suffice in dissuading China from breaking the peace.

-- From The Asian Wall Street Journal