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Taiwan's cold feet

Philip Bowring

HONG KONG Will Taiwan put its money where its mouth is? That is the question being increasingly asked by a United States frustrated with the unwillingness of the Taiwanese legislature to vote money to buy the arms promised by the Bush administration back in April 2001.
It has reached the point where Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, Richard Lawless, recently penned some blunt words for a U.S.-Taiwan Business Council conference: "No one expects Taiwan to outspend [China] on weapons procurements. What we do expect is that Taiwan has the collective will to invest in a viable defense, to address a growing threat and be in a position to negotiate the future of cross-strait relations from a position of strength."
The delay in finalizing the purchases is trying the patience of Taiwan's friends in the U.S. Congress, influencing Pentagon thinking about its own commitments, and creating a huge vacuum in Taiwan's defense planning.
The longer the standoff lasts, the stronger the argument that the main weapons systems on the list are no longer the most appropriate purchases to confront China's Taiwan Strait build-up.
The chief items on a list - which originally totaled $18 billion, but has since been trimmed by Taiwan - are Patriot air defense batteries, four Kidd-class guided missile destroyers, eight submarines and 12 antisubmarine aircraft.
While Taiwan is dragging its feet, Beijing is stepping up pressure on Washington not to go ahead with the deal. While the U.S. administration will not succumb to overt pressure, it has clearly lost its earlier enthusiasm for taking a firmer line on Taiwan than the Clinton administration.
Beset with problems in Iraq and elsewhere, the administration is unlikely to feel quite the same commitment to Taiwan. Of course the United States has broader strategic interests in the island and its adjoining straits, but the belief that Taiwan deserves U.S. backing for its own sake is being eroded by the feeling that it is reluctant to stand up for itself.
It is not just the arms purchases which are a bone of contention. Total Taiwan military spending is just 2.5 percent of gross domestic product, compared with roughly double that figure in Singapore. This is viewed by Washington as a poor reflection of Taiwan's willingness to defend itself.
With $254 billion in foreign exchange reserves and a huge current account surplus, Taiwan does not lack the money for equipment.
But in Taiwan itself, many are irritated by the sense that the United States fails to appreciate that the reluctance to spend money on defense is the result of an open, democratic system of government in which the executive is at odds with an opposition-controlled legislature.
Behind this conflict lie various strands of opinion unfavorable to arms spending. The Kuomintang-led opposition coalition has always supported reunification and now believes that, given developments on the mainland, it can be achieved freely and peacefully.
Beijing's current efforts to further cross-straits exchanges and economic integration have been strengthening this view and thus undermining the argument for arms purchases.
Some who are more skeptical of the mainland argue that there is no way Taiwan can keep up with China's military expenditure, so there is no point in trying. It must rely on the strategic interests and firepower of the United States and Japan.
Yet others are skeptical of U.S. motives, believing that the weapons are overpriced or out of date. They also suggest that the United States should offer more advanced destroyers than the second-hand Kidd class, and should provide the technology so the submarines could be built in Taiwan.
Then there are those who oppose the purchase on fiscal grounds. On the right, they worry about the budget deficit; on the left they focus on the need for more social spending.
The bottom line is that there is not the public support for military spending that would make the opposition's obstruction of the arms deals a major political liability.
Taiwan has achieved a liberal, democratic society, for which the United States can take much credit. But neglect of military needs by democratic civilian politicians is a reasonable concern for the United States.
Taiwan has to face the fact that the United States is its only supplier of modern weapons. Beijing's trade clout is now such that neither the French nor Dutch, who in the past were willing to face China's anger for the sake of some big arms deals, will be sending any salesmen to Taipei.
The 2001 list may not be optimal, but with these weapons, Taiwan can keep the cost to the mainland sufficiently high so as to act as a deterrent. That in turn would reassure its few friends that Taiwan is prepared to stand up for itself, and that its identity is more than just politicians' rhetoric.
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