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"Stand by Taiwan"
Washington Post Editorial

Monday, April 10, 2000

NO peaceful solution to the conflict over Taiwan is possible unless China is deterred from attempting to take the democratic island by force. One critical element in deterring China is the United States' implicit commitment to defend Taiwan from aggression. Another is Taiwan's own capacity to blunt the various military means--missile attack, submarine blockade, outright invasion--that China might employ against the island. On that score, a new Pentagon study, described in The Post by Thomas E. Ricks, is alarming. Taiwan's navy, air force and army are poorly organized, inadequately trained and have failed to keep pace with the information revolution. A key reason for Taiwan's military deterioration, the study argues, is its diplomatic isolation. This is another way of saying that, thanks to successive U.S. administrations' solicitude toward China, Taiwan has lost high-level contact with the U.S. military, which alone possesses the cutting-edge know-how Taiwan needs.

Though still classified, the Pentagon report apparently is consistent with the public assessments of most analysts who have studied Taiwan's forces. The question is what the United States should do. One response is embodied in the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA), passed by the House in February, which would require the Pentagon to step up military-to-military contacts with the Taiwanese. And with a late-April informal deadline for deciding which weapons to sell Taiwan looming, some in Congress want to send Taiwan advanced U.S. hardware such as the Aegis cruiser, which bristles with the latest anti-missile radar technology. Not surprisingly, Beijing says that either passage of TSEA or the sale of Aegis would do grievous harm to Sino-U.S. relations.

Though the concerns embodied in TSEA are legitimate, there is little chance the president would sign the measure even if it passed the Senate. Nevertheless, the bill remains relevant as a signal to the administration that its approach to Taiwan's security is losing credibility. If it wishes to change that, and thus to shore up the impression of U.S. resolve that is so vital to peace between China and Taiwan, it should implement some of the changes TSEA calls for -- which are implicitly backed by the Pentagon report--such as greater access to U.S. information and military education for Taiwanese officers. Selling Taiwan the weapons systems it needs to defend itself is important. But some of these weapons systems, such as the Aegis cruisers, wouldn't arrive for at least five years. Access to training and information could help restore competence and confidence to Taiwan's forces quickly.

The Clinton administration will object that China would be furious at either arms sales or stepped-up military contacts--and it probably would. But new military and political realities are fast converging to make this argument increasingly untenable. The administration needs to make some tough choices about Taiwan's security; if it can't or won't act, then Congress should.

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