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
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
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.
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
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'