Taiwan's military, though outdated, still bristles with power. It boasts 4,000 pieces of heavy armor, 593 combat aircraft, and a navy of four submarines, 16 destroyers, and 21 frigates.
Yet all that may not be nearly enough. Just across the Formosa Strait, communist China's military threat to the island democracy is growing. Every day, Taiwan becomes more vulnerable.
Now the Bush White House must decide whether the time has come to slow China's military gains by selling Taiwan advanced weapons out of America's high-tech arsenal.
It's a move that China adamantly opposes, but some help for Taiwan seems all but certain. Some China hands suggest a compromise: Give Taiwan some weaponry, but not enough to goad China into precipitous military action.
China has reasons of its own for concern about Taiwan. Not only does it claim that Taiwan is a breakaway province that belongs under the Chinese flag, it also worries that pro-independence sentiment on the island is growing, particularly among younger Taiwanese.
Any infusion of advanced American weapons could embolden Taiwan's elected leaders to move toward independence.
Experts say the situation is potentially explosive.
Defense analyst Tom Donnelly of the Project for the New American Century is one of those who say that the current balance between China and Taiwan is now "tipping in favor of the mainland."
Mr. Donnelly, who spoke at a recent Cato Institute conference on Taiwan, says China's goals are clear. "[China] seeks to become the leading power in the region," he says. "They intend to displace us as the guarantor of the international order in East Asia."
Why all the worry?
Two near-term military threats to Taiwan are particularly worrisome for American planners.
The first involves missiles. China has installed more than 200 ballistic missiles capable of striking Taiwan. Fifty more are added every year. While the rockets are not very accurate, China could use them to terrorize and intimidate the Taiwanese.
Even more troublesome to Taiwan is China's modernizing Navy. The decline of the old Soviet military threat in Asia has given China the breathing room to upgrade its naval and air forces.
With its new quiet-running submarines and the use of sea mines, China could potentially throw a blockade around the island. An effective blockade would devastate Taiwan's thriving economy, which is almost totally dependent on imports and exports.
All this - plus the impasse over the 24 American aviators being held by the Chinese on Hainan Island - now presents the Bush White House with a torturous foreign policy decision.
Every April, as regularly as the cherry trees bloom, Washington debates Taiwan's annual requests for modern weapons. Taiwan is back this month with a new list.
A year ago, the Clinton administration looked at Taiwan's requests - and ducked. It delayed the prickliest decisions, such as the sale of attack submarines, P-3 surveillance airplanes, and Aegis-class destroyers.
It's doubtful that President Bush and Congress can defer such critical decisions for another year, though a delay of several months might be plausible.
David Shambaugh, director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at George Washington University, says that even without the Americans being held on Hainan, the arms decision this year would be "highly, highly momentous."
Dr. Shambaugh says that while the US may view the decision as primarily a military one, the Chinese will interpret it as a signal. They will judge the Bush action, he says, "as a sign of broad US intent toward China."
For that reason, Shambaugh is among those who suggests that the Bush administration delay - at least for awhile - the final decision on the most advanced weapons, such as new submarines or the Aegis. The situation now, he says, is simply "too supercharged."
A less-inflammatory option might be to sell Taiwan older Kidd-class destroyers. These would allow Taiwan to defend its fleet against air attacks, which pose a greater threat than China's land-based missiles. The more sophisticated Aegis destroyers could be offered later.
Backing away from China in the face of threats, however, would have serious long-term costs for the US, analysts say.
A weak US in the western Pacific puts at risk what Donnelly calls America's "de facto coalition" of democracies - including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia.
A US withdrawal in the face of Chinese assertion of power could be a "strategic catastrophe" for such nations, Donnelly says. They would have to begin hedging their bets as the US retreated.
Although China has lived unhappily with the Taiwan situation since 1950, several factors may be pushing it toward early action. China is worried about Taiwan's pro-independence movement, but it also is acutely aware of the island's potential to improve its war-fighting capability, says Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign-policy analyst at the Brookings Institution who recently wrote a study of US defense-policy options.
The possibility of war between Taiwan and China has been "grossly understudied" in recent years, Dr. O'Hanlon adds.
While China's leaders probably recognize the risk to foreign investment in their country in case of war, he says, that may not be a strong deterrent for them. "China may believe that Western countries are so focused on making money," O'Hanlon says, "that they would soon forgive and forget any war that had only limited direct effect on them."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor