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Jewish World Review May 9, 2001 / 16 Iyar, 5761

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow
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The Taiwanese flash point -- THE Bush administration won't sell Taiwan the most advanced weapons available, but it says it will defend Taipei from a Chinese attack. Instead of initiating a new military commitment, Washington should use increased weapons transfers to distance itself from any conflict in the Taiwan Strait.

The people of Taiwan have lived separately from China for decades. Nevertheless, the People's Republic of China has been growing more insistent that Taiwan accept a subordinate role, planting the seeds of conflict.

Luckily, tensions have subsided from a year ago, when Chen Shui-bian, candidate of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party, was elected president. The truce might be only temporary, however, since the political futures of both players remain uncertain.

In particular, an impending leadership transition in the PRC, combined with the increased military influence evident in the delayed release of the U.S. servicemen during the spy plane incident, could tempt one faction or another to use recovery of the "lost province" for political advantage.

In either case, a diplomatic confrontation could spiral toward military crisis - with Washington in the middle.

Today's debate is too limited. On one side are the China appeasers, who would essentially turn Taiwan over to Beijing's tender mercies. Such a policy would avoid needless confrontation, but should leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth of any advocate of liberty.

In sharp contrast are those who would offer a formal commitment to defend Taiwan, come what may. President George W. Bush's promise is only slightly less unequivocal. This policy puts America on a collision course with a nuclear-armed power.

If Beijing acts rationally, it will be deterred. But nationalism all too often spawns irrational decisions. The Bush administration, which struggled to defuse the confrontation over the U.S. spy plane, should avoid both extremes by arming Taiwan to defend itself.

Taipei has requested a variety of weapons, most importantly Arleigh Burke-class destroyers armed with the Aegis radar system and Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Taiwanese also asked for this system last year, but the United States demurred, under pressure from Beijing. Although the Bush administration agreed to provide much of what Taipei requested, on this it, too, said no.

Indeed, the Clinton administration's Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Stanley Roth, complained: "Too much attention is paid to weapons." In his view, Taiwan will lose if the dispute is militarized. "This issue has to be on a political track," he argued.

But a satisfactory political resolution - some modus vivendi that reflects the wishes of Taiwan's people - requires that Taipei possess a robust military deterrent. Taiwan's current qualitative arms superiority is one of the most important factors in keeping peace in the Strait.

Today China has only limited ability to coerce Taiwan. However, the PRC is modernizing its force, and the Pentagon warns that the military balance is likely to shift to China by around 2005, if Taiwan cannot augment its force. Then the PRC would likely become more assertive, even threatening.

A recent staff report for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee contends that "Taiwan desperately needs more advanced, longer-range weapons." Particularly important are arms that would thwart any attempt by Beijing to stage a quick knock-out blow.

Unfortunately, Taipei has few other potential suppliers: Most countries favor the PRC. Over the last decade France, Germany and Israel have all terminated weapons shipments to Taipei. The latter now supplies Beijing.

The United States should sell the weapons necessary for Taiwan to maintain a robust military - not to spite the PRC, but to allow Washington to step back from, not further into, the dispute.

A confrontation with China, hinted at during the spy plane contretemps, would be horrific. Should deterrence fail - and Beijing is never likely to take seriously Washington's threats over what to the PRC appear to be peripheral U.S. interests - America could end up losing Los Angeles to save Taipei.

Arming Taiwan would allow Washington to steer clear. Rather than issue entangling security guarantees, Washington would leave Taipei with both the means and the responsibility for its own defense.

The only conceivable justification for trimming weapons sales would be if Beijing agreed to renounce the use of force against Taiwan and adjusted its force deployments and enhancements accordingly. And only if doing so did not prejudice Taiwan should Beijing later reverse course.

Good relations with the PRC are important; contact with the West offers the best hope for further reform. But American policy toward Taiwan should not be drafted in Beijing.

Taiwan is an important friend. But the United States should not risk trading Los Angeles for Taipei. In short, it is in America's interest to provide the Taiwanese with the means to defend themselves. And then step back from any potential military contest.

JWR contributor Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Comment by clicking here.


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