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Arms policy playing into China’s hands

by Ted Galen Carpenter

WASHINGTON — As tensions continue to simmer between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, the Bush administration will come under increasing pressure to provide Taiwan with a firm security guarantee. That could be dangerous and put the United States directly at risk. Instead, the U.S. should increase arms sales to Taiwan and encourage other countries to do the same.

One of Beijing’s top priorities is to cut off Taiwan’s access to sophisticated military hardware. It’s working. As late as 1991, some 20 countries supplied Taiwan with arms. Today, the U.S. is virtually the only supplier. Israel was once a leading supplier but stopped in 1992 when it opened diplomatic relations with China. Israel today is an important supplier of cutting-edge military equipment and technology . . . to China. Germany agreed to stop arms sales to Taiwan in 1993. France, which had sold 60 Mirage fighters to Taiwan, stopped in 1998.

Chinese officials make it clear to countries with arms industries that “good” relations and lucrative economic ties with China depend upon those countries’ willingness to end military sales to Taiwan. Few governments contemplate defying Beijing’s wishes.

Even the U.S. has bowed to the pressure. Although the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act obligates Washington to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons, Washington’s performance has been erratic. Indeed, in the August 1982 U.S.-China communique, the Reagan administration promised to decrease and ultimately eliminate arms sales to Taiwan. American officials have insisted that the pledge was contingent on Beijing’s commitment to avoid using force to resolve the Taiwan issue. Chinese leaders interpret the communique provision as an ironclad, unconditional U.S. pledge to phase out arms shipments.

Washington today is wary of Taipei’s arms-purchase requests for fear of angering Beijing. The Clinton administration’s decision this year reflected the timidity. Washington agreed to sell Taiwan a long-range early-warning radar system, advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAMs), Javelin antitank missiles, and Maverick air-to-surface missiles. But Taiwan didn’t get most of these items, including the centerpiece of its request, the Arleigh Burke-class Aegis destroyers, as well as diesel submarines and P-3 Orion patrol aircraft. Indeed, among the top six items on Taipei’s list only one — Maverick missiles — was approved. Washington did sell AMRAAMs to Taiwan. But the fine print in the deal says that the missiles stay in America unless Washington releases them in response to an emergency. In other words: After you’re attacked we’ll let you have a weapon to defend yourself.

Such timidity plays into Beijing’s strategy to isolate, weaken and ultimately strangle Taiwan. If Taipei is to deter China from using coercion on the issue of reunification, Taiwan must be able to purchase modern armaments, now and in the future.

Beijing claims that if Taiwan agrees to reunification, the Taiwanese will be able to retain their government, economic system and military for an extended period. But this last pledge is meaningless unless Taiwan has access to modern weapons. Otherwise, the Taiwanese will be in the same position as Poland in 1939, which had the best horse cavalry in Europe. That did little good against Nazi Panzer tanks.

This does not mean that Washington should approve every request. Taipei’s desire for diesel submarines, for instance, seems ill advised and a waste of money. (Taiwan’s military would be better off increasing the number of P-3 aircraft for antisubmarine missions in its next request.) But U.S. officials should approve most weapons systems Taiwan seeks and stop worrying about whether such actions will annoy Beijing. As far as China is concerned, any arms sale to Taiwan is unacceptable.

In its own self-interest, Washington should be more open to Taiwan’s arms requests. A well-armed Taiwan is better able to deter Beijing from contemplating the use of force to achieve reunification. Conversely, a Taiwan armed only with obsolete weaponry may prove an irresistible temptation to hardliners in Beijing. An effective Taiwanese deterrent makes it less likely that the U.S. will ever be called on to rescue Taiwan. That is definitely in America’s best interest.