For Taiwan, an improved defense against China

Even without the Aegis radar, the island can now focus on a naval and air strategy.

The weapons package that includes destroyers, anti-submarine aircraft, and submarines that the US has offered to sell to Taiwan will trigger a major shift in the island's military focus: from land and air to air and sea. It's a change that some military analysts in Taiwan say not only reflects US strategic aims in the region, but also the island's most basic defense needs - keeping its shipping lanes open and fending off China as long as possible.

"People tend to forget that Taiwan is a trading country and that every single drop of oil has to be imported," says Chung Chien, a defense analyst with close ties to the military. "If our sea lanes were denied for even one day, it would be over."

Since Nationalist Army troops fled China for Taiwan in 1949, Taiwan's military's focus has been on its land-based defense. Only in the past decade have the Navy and Air Force begun to expand. The purchase of armaments to strengthen its position off the coast would be a major departure from the military's current doctrine, says Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, an independent think tank in Taipei. "Strategically it is meaningful - with the sales, Taiwan is forced to focus more on ASW [anti-submarine warfare] operations, and give the Navy more responsibility."

While President Bush deferred the sale of Aegis radar-equipped Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, some military analysts called the sale of submarines, a first after years of requests, hitting the jackpot.

Yet others, like Mr. Yang, say the military had little to be satisfied with. "It is unsatisfactory. Taipei didn't get the weapons systems they requested," Yang says.

Yet the shift will, as Mr. Bush has pointed out, help Taiwan to defend itself and hold its own until the United States has the time to respond in an attack.

Taiwan's reach would extend as far as the South China Sea to prevent a blockade, and would benefit US strategic needs as much as Taiwan's, Yang adds. "It's clear that US has different views of what Taiwan's defense needs. The sale shows that the US feels the threat of a blockade will be "the most important defense issue for the next 10 years."

With the ever-present threat that China would take Taiwan by force if it declared independence, China's own recent additions of submarines and destroyers to its arsenal have also raised concerns. And while any potential acquisitions by Taiwan do not provide a direct solution to China's buildup of ballistic missiles along its southeastern coast directly across from Taiwan, it could help in other ways.

"The sale is not just for a blockade, it's also a deterrent against any aggressive behavior by Beijing," says Arthur Ting, a military analyst and professor at the National Chengchi University's Institute of International Relations.

Many also wonder just how it is Taiwan will incorporate Kidd-class destroyers into its military, given the island's lack of human resources. Of Taiwan's 370,000 troops, the Navy only has 62,000. Building ports capable of harboring the 9,000-ton ships in three to four years is another concern.

The debate has also become heated here over why Taiwan should pay $300 to $400 million a pop for a destroyer some call a "decommissioned American used car at a high price." Some observers are upset with the control the US has over arms sales. While the military isn't likely to outright refuse any elements of the package, some are still disgruntled, according to Mr. Chung. It's "the way the big brother keeps little kid," he says.

But since World War II, the US has been key in shaping Taiwan's defense strategy. While this year's arms sale is the largest since 1992, it wasn't until after China's 1996 missile firings off Taiwan that the US began to enhance ties that had grown weaker since 1979, when the US severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of the People's Republic of China. Many defense analysts have admitted that the missile crisis had shown both Taiwan and the US how unprepared both sides were if a conflict were to occur.

"We don't have our own creativity and initiative," Professor Ting says. But, he adds, the weapons sale could trigger a new round of needed debate among military officials in Taiwan, who have long known that Taiwan's lack of a clear military mission has been one of its weak points. And while some may complain that Taiwan is getting shortchanged when it comes to the Kidd-class destoyers, others point out that the ship is actually a step closer to what Taiwan didn't get: Aegis.

"This is an interim step towards Aegis, although we are not absolutely sure if we can get it in the end - the Kidds are really the stepping stone," Ting says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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