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The Asian Wall Street Journal

April 20, 2000


Mixed Messages on Taiwan

Will China go to war to retake Taiwan? To answer that question, it's not enough to say that Beijing would be hurting its own interests if it attempted any such thing. China's leaders have repeatedly indicated that they would sacrifice economic and political ties with the rest of the world in order to prevent the island from drifting away from the motherland permanently. The estimated potential for the Taiwanese and U.S. militaries to inflict a humiliating defeat on China would be crucial to any Chinese decision to use force.

Potential deterrent power is only part of the go-or-no go equation, however. The Korean War, for example, began largely because of a miscalculation that the U.S. would not come to the aid of its ally. Therefore it's important not only to build up military capabilities, but also for the U.S. to send clear messages about its commitment to honor obligations.

That's why the U.S. decision not to sell Taiwan's navy several Aegis destroyers -- each equipped with lower-tier missile defenses and cruise missiles -- could turn out to be a bad strategic decision, even if the military rationale was reasonable. Coming as it does after a series of political moves to appease China on the issue of Taiwan, it raises doubts about American willingness to take even mild risks to defend a young democracy. This will hurt morale in Taipei and increase the chances of miscalculation in Beijing.

Let's say at the outset that there is still time to rectify this mistake, and the Pentagon has said it will study the need for Aegis ships. This may be a politically palatable way of preparing the ground for a sale next year. American military experts do seem to be getting a good grip on the problem of defending Taiwan, and a recent Pentagon report highlighted many of the glaring weaknesses in the island's military. The real question is whether the U.S. has the political will to fix them.

In essence the problem boils down to isolation. The Taiwanese brass have not adopted the best practices deriving from what the U.S. calls the "revolution in military affairs," because they haven't had access to the training and exchanges given to other U.S. allies. Command and control is weak and inter-service rivalry hampers joint operations. A large conscript army saps resources which should go toward modernizing the navy and air force as well as retaining competent technicians and professional soldiers.

Experts agree that Taiwan still has a technological edge over the mainland militarily, but within 10 years that edge will be gone unless U.S. policy changes now. China is developing a blue-water navy which will be able to blockade Taiwan's ports and bring the economy to its knees. It also has about 200 solid-fuel ballistic missiles deployed along the Strait, and is producing 50-70 more every year. These could be used to wipe out the island's airfields unless missile defense is upgraded.

What should the U.S. do to prevent the risk of war from rising? There is certainly room for disagreement about individual weapon systems, especially when they are as costly and complex as the Aegis ships. But the U.S. needs to address the dangers of a missile attack or a naval blockade. That means committing to sell the latest Patriot missile, the PAC-3, when it is introduced. It also means providing the tools of antisubmarine warfare like the P-3 Orion plane and persuading other countries to sell diesel submarines to Taiwan.

The most important material and psychological measure, however, will be ending the isolation of the Taiwanese military. Contact between U.S. officers and their Taiwanese counterparts has been woefully inadequate considering that they might one day have to work closely together. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in order to correct this. The Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Dennis Blair, has said that the Act doesn't allow him to do anything more than is currently possible, and it throws an unwelcome spotlight on the relationship. But this suggests that the U.S. military has been lax in using the available opportunities for exchanges.

That brings us back to the problem of political will. Some officials in the U.S. State Department and the White House seem to think fulfilling U.S. obligations to help Taiwan defend itself means being "provocative" toward China, and therefore it shouldn't be attempted. Of course, it's Chinese threats and missile deployments which are provocative, and countering them with defensive weaponry is the only response that Beijing will respect.

To act otherwise is to allow the risk of war to gradually increase. Some generals in Beijing believe that if they are given the resources to force Taiwan into submission, China could ride out the storm of international protest over the following decade. More rational leaders have so far prevailed because they can point to the U.S. commitment to Taiwan's defense. But if that commitment wavers, the calculus will change. Korea should have taught the U.S. that the fastest way to bring on a war is to lead a potential aggressor to miscalculate the odds. But then maybe they don't read much history in the U.S. White House.

-- From The Asian Wall Street Journal

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