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Some of the most influential pro-Taiwan lawmakers are giving President Bush — in the words of military analyst Rick Fisher — “two cheers” for the arms package he’s approved for the beleaguered island.
Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., says the arms sale will help Taiwan “resist coercion from an increasingly belligerent communist China.” But the powerful chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee intimated that the White House should have OK’d sale of four Aegis air- and missile-defense ships as well, insisting he was “unalterably persuaded” that such a sale was justified, especially “in light of the outrageous actions of the leaders in Beijing.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., the most vocal backer of Taiwan in the House, argues that the weapons OK’d for approval send a “message to China and the rest of Asia that America is not going to be pushed around.” But Rohrabacher says he would have been still happier with a stronger package, including the Aegis.
Military experts in Taiwan’s corner are taking a similar stance. Fisher, a passionate supporter of Taiwan and a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, says, “Clinton failed to sell a single weapons system of importance to Taiwan, and the Bush policy is a distinct break from the past.”
But Fisher, who left the Heritage Foundation partly as a result of his tougher position on China, is withholding the third cheer because “far more needs to be done” to counter the “massive ballistic-missile buildup on the mainland.” And the key to thwarting that threat, he argues, is the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, equipped with the anti-missile Aegis radar.
Fisher’s viewpoint among hawkish, pro-Taiwan defense experts is hardly unique. Bill Hawkins, a longtime defense analyst for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Al Santoli, the hard-line foreign policy expert for Rohrabacher, have voiced similar sentiments.
The most positive aspect of the Bush decision, say the Taiwan supporters, is that it decisively reverses the Clinton policy of forcing the Republic of China’s military to shrivel in the face of a powerful China buildup across the Taiwan Strait.
On the advice of Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department, Bush approved the biggest package of arms sales to the island since Bush I, including four Kidd-class destroyers, eight diesel-powered submarines and 12 P-3C sub-hunting Orion aircraft. Mine-sweeping helicopters, amphibious assault vehicles and the Avenger surface-to-air missile system were also approved for sale.
What Bush has done, say the experts, is make it possible for Taiwan to vastly upgrade its capacity to counter China’s mounting naval threat, including the mainland’s acquisition of two Russian-made Sovremenny destroyers, with powerful Sunburn missiles, and its purchase of four Russian-made Kilo-class diesel submarines. While significantly adding to their naval capacity, the Chinese are also increasing the number — and duration — of their patrols near Taiwan.
“Blockades and submarine warfare is apparently the direction China is taking as it contemplates its strategy with Taiwan,” says Bates Gill, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies. “This [Bush-approved sale of weapons] will change things dramatically.”
The Chinese government was angry enough that its ambassador to the United States, Yang Jiechi, delivered a formal letter of protest about the Bush decision to the State Department.
Nevertheless, some of Taiwan’s friends (but not for the record) think the Bush-approved sale of weapons may have been more adroit than tough-minded. They have culled an interesting paragraph from a front-page story in the April 1, New York Times. That report, filed from Taipei, reveals that a confidential review of U.S. naval officers from the Pacific Fleet concluded that the Republic of China needs “a significant infusion of weapons.”
The paragraph in question begins, “Beijing has singled out as particularly objectionable potential sales of three types of weapons: the Navy’s Aegis, which China fears may provide the basis for an eventual anti-missile defense and blunt China’s missile threat to the island; the Army’s advanced Patriot anti-missile system known as PAC-3 and submarines which China maintains are offensive weapons and which the United States has never before sold to Taiwan.”
Two of those weapons systems, the Aegis destroyer and the PAC-3, were not included in the Bush menu of weapons for Taiwan and have been “deferred,” in the language of the administration. Eight diesel subs were approved, but there may be a hitch here as well.
The sub sale is complicated by an obscure fact. The United States no longer produces diesel-powered submarines, but had planned to build the subs in Pascagoula, Miss., using either German or Dutch designs. But Uwe-Karsten Heye, chief spokesman for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, informed Bloomberg News Service last week that Germany had not received an application from the United States to build or sell licenses for submarines for Taiwan.
“In any event,” he said, “we wouldn’t permit the sale,” the chief reason being communist China’s objections.
Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Frank de Bruin was equally blunt.
“The Netherlands,” he said, “maintains a one-China policy. That means no weapons are to be sold to Taiwan or to third parties for resale to Taiwan.”
Without the cooperation of the Dutch or the Germans — and surely we must have known their position beforehand, say Bush’s critics — the United States will have to build these subs from scratch, a task that may take eight or 10 years, two to three times longer than if we had access to the designs. Thus, China’s strong objections to our providing Taiwan the Aegis, the PAC-3 and the submarines, some are saying, may have paid off after all.
Harsh conservative critics of the Bush decision, however, are in the minority. The majority upbeat assessment is that the President has ditched the Clinton policy and has taken significant steps to enable Taiwan to deter any potential attack from China.
Moreover, despite the furor it caused, President Bush’s statement last week on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” that strongly indicated that the United States would use force to defend Taiwan from attack greatly encouraged many in the pro-Taiwan national security community.
Asked if we had “an obligation to defend the Taiwanese,” Bush responded: “Yes, we do, and the Chinese must understand that.” But with the “full force of American military?” he was pressed. “Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend herself,” he replied.
Some critics complained Bush’s statement exceeded the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, but the TRA says that the policy of the United States is “to maintain the capacity of the U.S. to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or social or economic system of the people on Taiwan.” It also says that any non-peaceful action, including “boycotts or embargoes,” against Taiwan would be “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”
By week’s end, Bush had not significantly backtracked. His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said that Bush’s statement shows “how seriously and resolutely” the president takes his obligations under the TRA.
Whether the president decides to stick with his statement or soften the formula is almost irrelevant, argue Taiwan’s supporters. What is extremely important, they say, is that Bush has revealed his strong determination to prevent the free, democratic Republic of China from being conquered by the communists on the mainland. That’s a major psychological weapon the Chinese communists will have to contend with in their powwows on how to take Taiwan, along with the sophisticated hardware Bush has promised he would deliver to the ROC.
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