Today is D-Day for Taiwan -- the day the Bush administration advises our democratic friends on Formosa whether it has decided to approve their request for four Aegis air- and missile-defense ships needed to protect the island against the large and growing threat posed by Communist China. Unfortunately, according to press leaks to the Wall Street Journal, the answer appears to be a "maybe."
The Journal reports that "a senior official familiar with the [internal U.S.] deliberations" told it that the leading option would be to forego the Aegis sale if "China cuts back the number of missiles pointed at the island." This idea tracks with a suggestion made several weeks ago by the United States Pacific Command -- whose commander (known by the acronym of his title, CINCPAC) once made clear his attitude towards Free China in an off-color, but revealing, comment to congressional staffers. He told them that Taiwan is "the turd in the punchbowl of U.S.-China relations."
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The Bush team should be under no illusion: The CINCPAC proposal is a non-starter. Not only are the Chinese -- who strenuously oppose the U.S. sale of Aegis ships to Taiwan -- unlikely to play along. Even if they were to do so, the idea would be unworkable and undesirable from the U.S. and Taiwanese points of view. Consider just a few of the problems inherent in such an approach:
First, the United States cannot be absolutely sure how many missiles Beijing has pointed at Taiwan right now. Intelligence reports suggest that there may currently be as many as 300 of them. Is that correct? Or have the Chinese successfully concealed some of their missile deployments? Given the great lengths to which the People's Liberation Army goes to prevent us from correctly assessing their present and emerging order of battle (their deliberate take-down of our EP-3E is but the most recent and egregious example of their concealment and deception program), it would be an act of considerable hubris to believe we can and will know precisely what the PLA is doing.
Alternatively, can we be sure that other, longer-range missiles in the PRC's inventory are not also targeted on Taiwan? If that is not the case today, in the exceedingly unlikely event China were actually to agree to relocate some of its shorter-range missiles away from locations where they could reach Taiwan, would other weapons be reassigned to cover the
original targets? Would we have any inkling that the threat was thus being maintained, if not exacerbated?
Second, assuming we did have some way of knowing with confidence precisely how much of a capability to attack and destroy Taiwan Beijing was maintaining at any given time, there is the matter of what psychologists call "cognitive dissonance." Policymakers who don't want to be confronted with evidence that their policies are not working out make little secret of their preferences. Bill Clinton once notoriously admitted to engaging in a practice he called "fudging" the facts. For his part, Al Gore rejected an unwelcome intelligence finding that his favorite Russian interlocutor, then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, was thoroughly corrupt by scrawling a "barnyard epithet" across it.
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Giving the Bush team the benefit of the doubt, let's just say they wouldn't behave so irresponsibly as to discourage the intelligence community from speaking truth to power. Our cumulative experience with arms control agreements nonetheless suggests that there is a powerful tendency within the intelligence community to find only ambiguity when reasonable clarity might entail undesirable repercussions. A case in point has been the systematic failure by the U.S. intelligence community to acknowledge that first the Soviet Union and then Russia built and operated a territorial defense against ballistic missile attack impermissible under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Here's how it would work in the current context: Analysts at the CIA or other parts of the intelligence community tasked with monitoring Chinese missilery within range of Taiwan would surely find ample grounds in the aforementioned uncertainties to avoid any conclusion or finding that would trigger Aegis deployments. As a result, the U.S. commitment to provide Taiwan with the defense the Bush Pentagon has confirmed it needs would never become operational.
Finally, there is no getting around the fact that the Aegis component of the present arms package is the litmus test for the Bush policy towards China. Beijing has made blocking the Aegis sale the object of its most virulent criticism. The PRC's allies in U.S. business and academic circles have, as usual, rallied to its side, arguing that the sale would be far too provocative (although, interestingly, the ultimate "Friend of China," Henry Kissinger has reportedly made known in private his view that the United States should sell Aegis ships to Taiwan.). For these reasons, among others, the administration was apparently inclined before the EP-3E episode to give Taiwan other weapon systems -- including four, less-capable
Kidd-class destroyers -- but to turn down the Aegis sale.
China's belligerence in taking down and holding our surveillance aircraft and the U.S. expression of regret required to extract our service personnel held hostage by the PRC have, however, indisputably changed the circumstances under which the Bush decision on the Taiwan arms package will be perceived in Beijing and in the region. Should the flagship (literally) element of that package -- the sea-based air- and missile-defense systems Taipei urgently requires -- now be stripped from it, or made subject to some specious Chinese missile movements, it will be seen as evidence that the U.S. practice of accommodating the PRC has not changed, even if the occupant of the White House has.
Until such time as the United States can construct and turn over Aegis ships ordered by Taiwan, it should provide her friends there not only with Patriot anti-missile systems, diesel submarines and other elements of the requested arms package. America should also immediately begin to equip and assign her own fleet of Aegis ships to provide interim anti-air and missile protection to the people of Taiwan -- as well as those of Israel, Japan, Europe, South Korea and those here at home.