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US should sell arms to Taiwan

Boston Globe, March 17, 2001

By James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara

WHEN VICE PREMIER Qian Qichen, China's top foreign-policy official, comes to Washington tomorrow to meet with President George W. Bush, his not-so-hidden agenda will include pressuring the administration into refusing to sell Taiwan certain advanced weaponry.

The president should resist Chinese pressure. Furthermore, he should reverse the unofficial moratorium on arms sales to Taipei imposed by Bill Clinton. Because of US neglect, the Taiwanese military has remained frozen at a 1980s technological level - or worse, in some cases - while China has embarked on a weapons buying spree that has tilted the balance of power alarmingly.

With the help of a cash-starved Russia, the Chinese military has obtained front-line fighter aircraft, surface warships armed with missiles able to sink even America's warships, never mind the dilapidated Taiwanese navy, and diesel submarines capable of encircling Taiwan and strangling the island's thriving economy, which relies overwhelmingly on seaborne commerce.

Most ominously, Beijing has rapidly built up an arsenal of ballistic missiles to menace the island. A 1999 Pentagon report - corroborated by subsequent satellite intelligence - predicted that China would position some 650 short-range missiles across the Strait from Taiwan by 2005. The Chinese military threat is real.

China is not, however, trying to build up an armada of amphibious transports to resolve the Taiwan issue the old-fashioned way - by ferrying an invading army across the Strait and conquering the ''renegade province.''

It doesn't need to. Beijing's main purpose is to deal Taipei a crippling psychological blow. Chinese strategists have sought to develop forces able to dispatch the Taiwanese navy and defeat the Taiwanese air force. Next they would use their military supremacy to impose a blockade and bombard the civilian infrastructure with ballistic missiles.

To what end? This carefully calibrated strategy is calculated to make Taiwanese citizens acutely aware of their vulnerability. Beijing believes Taiwan's public, conscious of its hopeless military plight and starved of trade - its economic lifeblood - might simply give in. The Chinese are convinced that a demoralized population would exert political pressure on Taipei to enter negotiations leading to reunification with the mainland - on terms entirely to Beijing's liking.

America must not allow China to entertain such illusions.

Restoring rough military parity between the beleaguered island and the colossus across the Strait would show the Chinese they will be unable to impose a settlement forcibly. Equally important, this would embolden Taiwanese citizens and allow them to withstand the Chinese psychological onslaught. Prospects for a peaceful settlement satisfying both sides would brighten accordingly.

Consequently, selective American military support, carefully tailored to blunt China's strategy, is crucial to buoy Taiwanese morale and allow Taipei to pursue a negotiated settlement in its own time. Indeed, this prudent approach already enjoys strong bipartisan support and was codified in the 1998 Taiwan Security Enhancement Act.

What parts of the Taiwanese arms wish list should the Bush administration agree to? The United States should sell the island defensive weaponry to counter China's air, naval, and ballistic-missile threats. Washington should deliver the stockpile of advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles already sold to Taipei, sell four retired Kidd-class multi-role, guided-missile destroyers, upgrade Taiwan's anti-ballistic-missile batteries, and provide long-range ground-based radars that can detect ballistic-missile launches.

None of these weapons would delude Taiwan into thinking it can win an all-out war with mainland China. It can't. And no sane Taiwanese statesman would be reckless enough to bet the survival of his country on an armed clash - the inevitable outcome of a declaration of independence.

But US weaponry would be adequate to demonstrate to Chinese leaders that they too will be unable to settle the dispute militarily.

Beijing would be forced to realize - grudgingly, to be sure - that its only option was to continue the painstaking process of working out a diplomatic solution to the Taiwan question.

James R. Holmes, a former US Navy surface warfare officer, and Toshi Yoshihara, a China specialist at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, are PhD candidates at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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