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Taiwan needs more than weapons for protection 

Monday, April 23

By Trudy Rubin 

Philadelphia Inquirer 

 

The small, rich, democratic island of Taiwan could become the most dangerous place in the world. This is the one place over which the United States could conceivably go to war with another nuclear power -- China. Such is the grim prospect underlying the Bush administration's hotly debated decision about new arms sales to Taiwan, coming this week. Beijing considers Taiwan a "renegade province" that must be reunified with the mainland. The United States insists Taiwan's status must be resolved peacefully and is pledged to help Taiwan acquire enough weapons to defend against Chinese attack. 

The current question is whether to sell Taiwan an advanced ship-borne radar system known as Aegis. In theory, Aegis could someday help Taiwan link up to a planned U.S. missile defense system and blunt the threat of China's missile buildup opposite the island. China bitterly opposes the sale. Conservatives in Congress want President Bush to approve it. But at its heart the debate over Aegis is about something bigger: the best way to protect Taiwan but still avoid a war between China and the United States. 

This question is tricky because the Taiwan issue comes wrapped in a tangle of history and emotions. Taiwan has been cut off from the Chinese mainland for over a century; it was first occupied by the Japanese in 1895, then by the fleeing army of the nationalist Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, who lost the mainland to the communists in 1949. 

Getting Taiwan back has become a visceral nationalist issue on the mainland. It's seen as a way to obtain redress for historic slights by foreigners, proof that China can maintain control over other restless provinces. Liberal Chinese friends snap when I broach the subject of an independent Taiwan. It's easy to imagine the Chinese public supporting a war to retain the island, even if that war made no rational sense. 

But America, too, has historic ties to Taiwan. We broke formal diplomatic relations with the Republic of Taiwan when we recognized China in 1979. But we also signed the Taiwan Relations Act, which binds us to supply the island with sufficient weapons for self-defense. We've played a vital role in Taiwan's shift from an autocracy to one of the most vibrant democracies and economic success stories in Asia. Much of the island's political and business elite were educated over here.

Now Taiwan balances in a political no-man's-land, recognized by only a few countries, hoping to work out some kind of loose confederal relationship with China. But that can happen only when China becomes sufficiently democratic that the link is not repressive. 

Meantime, U.S. policy is not to back Taiwan's independence but to dissuade China from settling the matter by force. Trying that would be a huge mistake for China, and letting them do that would be a moral catastrophe for us -- and end our role as a major power in Asia. Which brings us back to the question of how to help Taiwan defend itself and prevent China from a major miscalculation. 

The Aegis radar isn't the answer. The system, with its attendant destroyers, won't be ready for eight more years. The planned missile defenses to which it would plug in are unlikely to work well enough to protect the island from Chinese missiles. Other weapons systems -- less likely to provoke a Chinese overreaction -- are better suited to Taiwan's current defense needs. Aegis systems can be delivered in the future if the Chinese missile buildup continuesl. But Taiwan needs something more than mere weapons. As China expert Robert Ross of Boston College puts it: "U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have minimum impact. What defends Taiwan is the U.S. commitment. The key is to convince the Chinese of our continuing commitment." 

What really bothers China about Aegis is that the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries would have to work hand in glove. That kind of close cooperation should be intensified even without the radar systems -- sending a clear message that our military will stand behind theirs. Only if China is convinced of our commitment to Taiwan can we head off a future clash. Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

You may contact her at trubin@phillynews.com

 
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