A delay in the approval of an $11 billion arms sale to Taiwan has fueled concerns about the United States' commitment to help defend the island from Chinese attack. Speculation on the reasons for the freeze has mounted in the absence of a clear explanation from the US government. Taiwanese officials believe the sale has been postponed so that the US can secure China's cooperation and that it may yet go through after the Olympics.
At issue is a package of arms, including Patriot antimissile systems and attack helicopters, that was offered to Taiwan by the Bush administration in 2001 as part of the president's pledge to do "whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan.
Taiwan's legislature approved the purchase of the weapons after a long delay last December. But the Bush administration has yet to notify Congress of the sale – a necessary formality before the weapon systems can be released.
The US is also ignoring Taiwan's request for more than 60 F-16 fighter jets to boost its air power.
But the Taiwanese government continues to urge the US to move forward, and some pro-Taiwan commentators have criticized the Bush administration for shirking obligations to the island.
China sees self-governing Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened force to back up its claim. Beijing has long pressed the US to phase out arms sales to Taiwan, but the US government is bound by law to make defensive arms available to the island.
Reuters reported last week that the top US military commander in the Pacific, Adm. Timothy Keating, confirmed the current freeze on major arms sales to the island. He noted that improved cross-strait relations had sharply reduced the potential for conflict.
But other current and former US officials appeared to contradict Keating's remarks. Asked whether US policy on arms sales to Taiwan had changed, a State Department spokesman said, "The short answer is no," according to the transcript of a US State Department daily press briefing. The spokesman continued:
Speaking in Taipei on Wednesday, Paul Wolfowitz, former deputy defense secretary in the Bush administration and current chairman of the board of the US-Taiwan Business Council, said that he thought President Bush was committed to selling arms to Taiwan and would do so before he left office, according to the Associated Press.
US foot-dragging on arms sales to the island comes amid a thaw in Taiwan-China relations under Taiwan's new, China-friendly president, Ma Ying-jeou. The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that since Mr. Ma took power on May 20, the two sides have moved rapidly to expand cross-strait links.
But Ma said that Taiwan still needs US help to defend itself against China, despite recently improved cross-strait relations, the Associated Press reports. He called recently for the US to remove the freeze.
The Financial Times cited top Taiwanese national security officials as saying that Taiwan was dropping its push for F-16s for now in order to focus on getting the other weapon systems approved. The report adds that Taipei officials believe the delay is motivated by the US's attempt to secure China's cooperation.
Pro-Taiwan commentators in the US have blasted the Bush administration for being soft on China. Writing in the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Heritage Foundation's John Tkacik and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy's Gary Schmitt said the US was shirking its obligation to defend Taiwan's democracy against the Chinese threat.