In a move that has infuriated Beijing, U.S. President George W. Bush has decided to offer Taiwan a package of weapons that will allow the island to significantly upgrade its defenses. While four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with the Aegis air-defense system have been excluded, relations between the United States and China are sure to sour. All Asian nations have to be ready for the spillover that will follow this decision.
The U.S. is obliged under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act to sell Taiwan weapons that allow the island to defend itself. According to U.S. officials, the changing balance of power in the Taiwan Strait, the result of unrelenting modernization by the Chinese military and the continuing deployment of missiles on the mainland opposite Taiwan, provided ample justification for Mr. Bush’s decision to proceed with the sales.
Under the deal, the largest such arms package in a decade, the U.S. would sell Taiwan four Kidd-class destroyers, 12 antisubmarine P-3 “Orion” aircraft and eight diesel submarines. The package also includes a technical briefing on systems that Taiwan may purchase later, such as the PAC-3 missile defense system, torpedoes, decoys, minesweeping helicopters and self-propelled artillery.
All the sales are not guaranteed. First, there is the price tag. Mr. Bush has merely approved the sale of the weapons to Taipei; the total package will total billions of dollars and could prove difficult to afford if the Taiwanese economy slows. The submarines could prove problematic. The U.S. no longer makes the diesel submarines that Taiwan wants; Germany and the Netherlands do, but they will come under stiff pressure from Beijing to refuse. Some sort of arrangement with the U.S. is likely to be required.
Mr. Bush decided to hold back on the sale of the Aegis system — Washington hopes to use it as a bargaining chip — but that is not going to win him any points. (Taiwan may well have put the Aegis on its military wish list as a lightning rod that it could easily discard.) China has long warned that the sale of any advanced weapons systems will damage Sino-U.S. ties, and this package provides ample reasons for Beijing to complain.
The Kidd-class destroyers are bigger than any other vessels in the Taiwanese fleet. They will allow Taipei to increase the size of its ship-based weapons systems. China will be especially angry over the sale of the submarines. Currently, Taiwan has four submarines, two of which are so old that they are used only as training vessels. Previous U.S. administrations refused to sell the vessels because of sensitivity in Beijing; the Chinese consider them to have offensive capabilities, a view shared by most defense experts.
Chinese officials said they are “seriously opposed” to the sales. Stronger protests will follow — and Beijing is unlikely to restrict itself to mere complaints. If the tone of Sino-U.S. diplomacy was already strident, we should now brace for shrill.
Anti-U.S. rhetoric is sure to escalate. Talks with Washington over the return of the EP-3 spy plane stranded on Hainan will go nowhere. Other diplomatic contacts will be suspended.
Given the nationalism that is setting the tone in China, more serious forms of muscle flexing are expected. More missile deployments on the Fujian coast near Taiwan are likely, as are increased military exercises. There is a good chance that China will exact its revenge in other areas; given Beijing’s claim that the weapons sales escalate the military confrontation in the Taiwan Strait, a similar form of escalation might occur elsewhere. In other words, China’s willingness to refrain from its own weapons sales is likely to be a casualty of the deal.
Each of those moves poses a threat to stability in the region, increasing the chance of a miscalculation and the potential for conflict. Yet governments in Asia cannot ignore those provocations. Beijing cannot be given the impression that it is free from the constraints imposed on every other nation.
The timing of this episode could not have been worse. Chinese nationalism has already been inflamed by the spy-plane incident. The visit of Taiwan’s former President Lee Teng-hui to Japan and his now-postponed trip to the U.S. have made Beijing even more suspicious of Taiwanese intentions. Taiwan’s president, Mr. Chen Shui-bian, is also scheduled to stop over in the U.S. next month during a Latin American tour. That will add fuel to the fire.
Beijing has already warned that the arms sales could have “a devastating effect” on U.S. relations with China. That need not be true. The U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense is an integral part of Asian security. As long as that pledge is balanced by support for the “one China” policy — and Washington dampens any enthusiasm for independence in Taipei — the blame for any deterioration in Asian stability rests squarely with China.
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