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Edging Taiwan in From the Cold

By Kurt M. Campbell

April 25, 2001, The Washington Post 

 The significance of the decision to provide Taiwan with a sophisticated array of largely naval platforms and weaponry is not so much what was provided by the Bush administration -- submarines, naval patrol craft and refurbished destroyers -- as the way in which the decision was communicated. Lost in the public churning over will they or won't they sell Aegis class destroyers (a decision that the new team chose to defer) was the very public style in which Taiwan Strait security issues were handled. The higher profile given to the changing security situation and the subtle reestablishment of contacts with the Taiwan military are likely to have much more profound long-term implications than any weapons system agreed upon today.

Buried beneath the fold on the list of glistening weapon systems and sophisticated technology handed over to the visiting Taiwanese military delegation are a series of somewhat innocuous sounding "briefings" and "technical surveys." The reality is that these steps calling for greater interaction and communication between Taiwan and the United States -- often referred to as "software" initiatives -- are in many ways more important and possibly more sensitive diplomatically than the "hardware" systems that have to date received all the attention. Beijing has long feared and loudly warned that renewed interactions of this kind would not be well received. It remains to be seen what the reaction will be to the U.S. decision to bring Taiwan's military further in from the cold.

The United States abrogated its security treaty with Taiwan in 1979 as part of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with China. As a result, the United States and most other major states in Asia have had little contact with Taiwan's security apparatus for more than a generation. Indeed, in the past 20 years, no military establishment in the world has experienced the kind of sustained international isolation that is a daily reality for Taiwan -- not Iraq or even North Korea. This seems somewhat incongruous given the proliferation of all kinds of commercial and cultural contacts between the island and the United States during the same period.

The only significant interaction for a number of years occurred at the quiet annual meetings in Washington between mid-level officers on both sides to discuss Taiwan's defense needs as stipulated by the landmark Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. Most years the Taiwan team sneaked in and out of town with barely a notice, even when significant decisions were made. In contrast, this week's meeting has received enormous public attention and has been a sensitive date on the diplomatic calendar of Asia for months.

The new profile given to these forgotten warriors from Taiwan reflects new security realities on the ground, in the air and in the surrounding seas of the Taiwan Strait. For a host of complex reasons, the People's Republic of China has set about trying to develop and acquire military capabilities designed to coerce Taiwan to the bargaining table. Yet the military systems that Beijing has fielded during the past half-decade -- including medium-range missiles, submarines and fighter aircraft -- look less and less like heavily armored bargaining chips and more and more like true military capabilities with potential battlefield implications and uses.

During the provocative missile tests off Taiwan's shores in 1995-96, one of the biggest areas of uncertainty for Pentagon planners and intelligence specialists was the question of what Taiwan's military would do in a security crisis with China. The recognition that a potential blind spot for the United States in a tense situation was the possible actions of our erstwhile ally led to a substantial increase in unofficial and behind-the-scenes contacts with the Taiwan military during the Clinton years.

The Bush team has taken these initial steps to the next logical level, calling for more unofficial interaction between the armed forces of the United States and Taiwan. There are several reason why this is important.

First, the Taiwan military is an important actor in national security situations across the Strait, and it is in the strongest interests of the United States to have better contacts and understanding of Taiwan's uniformed professionals.

Second, to make this new hardware that we have just provided Taiwan work will require more training and interaction if the sales are to truly bolster Taiwan's fragile security.

Third, knowing how Taiwan will behave in a crisis helps U.S. forces and contingency planning in innumerable ways and is a prudent step, given the military buildup taking place across the Strait.

Finally, more contact with the militaries on both sides may help promote a degree of military confidence-building -- a distant prospect now, with visas and spy planes flying fast and furious, but something to earnestly work toward once the initial dust from this Taiwan arms sales package settles in Beijing.


The writer is senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


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