Taiwan leader pushes US arms deal

President Chen this week renewed a request to approve a multibillion-dollar arms purchase.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a bid to rally Taiwan's flagging independence forces, President Chen Shui-bian's New Year's resolution seems to be provoking mainland China with a push announced this week to buy US arms, including eight submarines and a dozen sub-hunting aircraft.

For five years, as China has created a high-tech attack force designed to overwhelm Taiwan, the island's politicians have batted around a US-approved package of sophisticated military equipment worth between $10 and $19 billion.

Yet little has actually been procured. The arms deal, dreamed of by Taiwanese generals, has been a political tar-baby that has never passed the legislature. Taiwan's inability to move on the arms deal has prompted criticism in Washington, even among Taiwan's devout friends, who complain the island appears unwilling to defend itself and is banking instead on US military power.

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At the same time, an increasing number of US defense experts, including Pacific commander Adm. William Fallon, are asking whether a package of sophisticated arms is what best serves the tiny island of 23 million. In fact, new Chinese military advances may mean it is more practical and effective for Taiwan, say, to shore up basic defenses - use lots of cement and make better bunkers - rather than only buy fancy weapons.

Instead of spending huge sums on a diesel-electric sub that would take at least a decade to deploy, for example, they point to other measures that could be taken, including hardening airfields, buying antiaircraft missiles, and protecting electronic systems needed in a fight. Instead of procuring expensive and vulnerable warships, Taiwan could buy mines that would deny the Chinese Army an easy landing on island beaches.

Such steps that force China to reconsider how quickly it can seize the island, in an attack, some experts argue.

"[Taiwan] may buy a huge load of stuff that may not be operational until it is too late," says James Mulvenon, of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis in Washington, D.C. "Taiwan needs to spend on things that will cause China to recalculate whether they can achieve a first-strike success."

"It may be politically satisfying to purchase big ticket glamour items. But it may not be practical," says Denny Roy of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies. "If you buy expensive ships, but don't have quick runway repair, you may regret it. Is it wise to procure a big bucket of golden eggs that you can't defend? Mines may not be sexy, but they may be an efficient use of funds."

In the past year, mainland China has made unprecedented inroads into Taiwan's political culture, with emotional spring visits by Taiwanese opposition leaders Lien Chan and James Soong to Beijing, and new talk of tourism, trade, shared ethnicity, and peace across the strait.

As a result, President Chen's Democratic People's Party, a bastion of pro-Taiwan sentiment, has witnessed a dramatic, sudden reversal of popularity - most recently in humiliating local elections last month.

Hence, a New Year's speech by the president, including calls for a new constitution, appears to be a feisty attempt by Chen, whose pro- independence stance is hated by Beijing, to fight on.

"Recent reports on the military power of the People's Republic of China, published by the United States and Japan, make it clear that China's military development evidently exceeds the reasonable scope of its defense needs," Chen argued in a Jan. 1 speech. "In the face of such imminent and obvious threat, Taiwan must not rest its faith on chance or harbor any illusions.... We shall seriously contemplate how our self-defense capabilities can be strengthened and how to effectively respond to the gradual tipping of military power across the strait in favor of China."

Many analysts see Chen's comment as scoring political points against the promainland Kuomintang Party, rather than a real attempt to create a better defense.

"Chen is a lot less serious about procuring the arms to defend Taiwan than he is about using this process to embarrass the KMT," argues Mr. Mulvenon. "We've made no progress on the submarine issue for three years. it is dead as a doornail. The only place it is discussed is Taiwan politics."

Chen's government has pushed so hard for the arms package that a simpler approach may be hard to contemplate. "We have heard about the new plan, but we think the current package is fine," says Joseph Wu, of the mainland affairs council, speaking of the defensive strategy noted by Admiral Fallon.

Reaction to new US suggestions is even less well received among opposition parties. Some KMT strategists now doubt China will ever attack Taiwan. If it does, they say, there may be little Taiwan can do. US analysts worry that Taiwan could be maneuvered into a position that turns US opinion abruptly against it, making it vulnerable to China and delaying defense reform.

Taiwan's defenses won't improve "as long as the president, much of the military, and the [parliament] regard one another with intense suspicion," says Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Taiwan's defense modernization is hampered by its dependency on "the vagaries of US support and assistance" and a Taiwanese "public left largely uninformed about the potentially lethal nature of the threat posed by the Chinese military," Mr. Swaine adds.

Another reason the Pentagon now balks at advanced weapons to Taiwan: Worry that they would slip into the hands of China's Army.

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