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The Wall Street  Journal                                                                                March 16, 2001  

Review & Outlook

Protecting Taiwan

President Bush's unabashed commitment to missile defense is already paying big dividends. In a turn of events that seemed highly improbable just a few months ago, much of Europe, Russia and now China have toned down their protests and agreed to discuss the issue. Indeed, Mr. Bush's missile defense initiative is sure to be high on the list of talking points next week when China's senior foreign policy official visits Washington.

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But Mr. Bush isn't the only one here who deserves credit. Beijing abruptly changed its tune on missile defense just days after the release of a Senate report recommending the sale of Aegis destroyers and other advanced weapons systems to Taiwan. Make no mistake, China's leaders still consider Mr. Bush's theater and national missile defense programs a threat. But they are more than willing to trade on an issue that ultimately they have no control over to block the immediate sale of sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan.

If the White House decides to go ahead with the sale it's sure to make relations with Beijing stormy for a spell. That in itself is no argument against the sale. Indeed, the Bush Administration would do well to set out a marker that it won't continue its predecessor's practice of placating China. The U.S. has an obligation under the Taiwan Relations Act to provide adequate weapons so the island can defend itself. Two of the key Chinese threats are ballistic missiles and submarines. For both, the U.S. should sell more of the weapons Taiwan needs to neutralize the Chinese threat.


The Chinese military has about 250 relatively inaccurate missiles stationed along the coast opposite Taiwan, and it is adding to that number at a rate of more than 50 a year. These could be used against Taiwan's airfields as part of an all-out attack, or they could be targeted at cities as a form of psychological warfare. The U.S. has already provided some lower-tier missile defense by selling the second-generation Patriot and transferring technology for Taiwan's own Sky Bow, in return for Taiwan abandoning efforts to develop ballistic missiles. Mr. Bush should now offer Taiwan the third generation of Patriots. China's Russian-built Kilo-class submarines are patrolling the Taiwan Strait, and the island's defenses against this threat are limited. The U.S. should not only sell Taiwan antisubmarine planes, but it should allow other countries to sell diesel subs to Taiwan. This has been ruled out in the past because subs are classed as offensive weapons, a distinction that has never made much sense.


But the best weaponry in the world won't matter without first-rate armed forces to use them. And here Taiwan could also use some help. When the U.S. and other countries switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing, military-to-military links were cut drastically. Taiwan has been isolated for so long that it missed out on many advances that would allow it to use its forces to greater effect.

The question then is whether Taiwan is ready to spend a huge proportion of its acquisitions budget in coming years on Aegis destroyers. They could play a useful role in missile defense, because they are capable of tracking and intercepting multiple missiles. But on the negative side, integrating these high-tech systems would require tremendous resources, and protecting them after they take up their role in the Taiwan Strait will pose more challenges.


One idea might be for the Bush Administration to postpone a decision on Aegis. It could tell the Chinese it will watch the buildup of missiles on the Fujian coast and predicate future sales on the state of the military balance. Aegis would be sold if it appears China wants to use missiles to overwhelm Taiwanese defenses. This would give China an incentive not to give free rein to the Chinese military hard-liners who are driving the Beiing-Taipei arms race. Of course, such an ultimatum would rely on U.S. credibility, which has been run down by the Clinton Administration. But this would offer a chance for President Bush to rebuild that credibility in the face of Chinese bluster.


The U.S. cannot afford to let a newly democratic Taiwan be bullied into any settlement with China that its people do not accept. Preserving Taiwan's political options means bolstering its defenses as long as China refuses to renounce the use of force. Hardware is important to that task, but software is just as critical. President Chen Shui-bian has shown himself to be a moderate and responsible partner for the U.S. in this effort. Only by opening new ties between the two militaries can Taiwan be prepared for the high-tech weaponry that it may need to acquire in the years ahead.

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