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   Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA)

Strengthening Taiwan

The Asian Wall Street Journal

April 4, 2000

As if Beijing's fist-thumping, finger-wagging threats against Taiwan last month weren't enough to make one's hair stand on end, now comes more worrisome news. Taiwan's defense capabilities are much weaker than previously believed, a classified Pentagon study has found. The main reasons, as reported in the Washington Post Friday, are arcane technology, poor leadership and diplomatic isolation. Just as China steps up its bullying rhetoric, Taiwan appears at its weakest.

Several proposals pending in Washington would go a long way toward strengthening the island's defenses. One is the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would offer greater technical assistance and training to Taiwan's military leaders, permit senior American military brass to visit the island, and finally establish direct communications between the armies. The legislation overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 314-70 in February, and is pending before the Senate. President Clinton has threatened to veto the bill.

Separately, the U.S. could also approve the sale of military hardware that Taipei has requested, such as air-defense missiles, submarines and Aegis destroyers equipped with long-range radar. A Taiwanese delegation will visit Washington later this month to press its grocery list, but the Clinton Administration shies away from sales of the most advanced weaponry for fear of provoking Beijing.

And then there's missile defense, a technology of growing importance in an increasingly volatile world. Taiwan wants to be under the umbrella of the theater missile defense system that the U.S. and Japan are working on for the region. Beijing doesn't like this idea and neither, so it seems, does the Clinton White House.

All of these moves would help the U.S. live up to its obligations to Taiwan under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which stipulates that any effort to forcibly determine Taiwan's identity is "of grave concern to the U.S." Until recently, American presidents crafted delicately worded statements that remained neutral on China's claim to the island. But in Shanghai in June 1998, Mr. Clinton unexpectedly changed that with his "three no's" statement, opposing Taiwanese independence or membership in state-based international organizations.

Mr. Clinton's words were widely interpreted in Asia as signifying a significant shift in American policy toward Taiwan. Most dangerously, they may have created the impression in Beijing that the U.S. is no longer committed to helping Taiwan meet its security needs. China doesn't need help when it pushes the line that increased American assistance to the island is provocative and unnecessary. In the U.S., China's apologists argue that the relationship with Beijing is too important to risk, and anyway the mainland is too weak to invade. Therefore, their argument goes, arms sales or other moves to strengthen ties with Taipei do more damage than good.

But the reality is far different. China has already embarked on a program to develop an offensive capability against Taiwan, underpinned by major increases in defense spending. And as the Clinton Administration has cooled toward Taipei, Beijing has become more and more assertive. The U.S. is not in a Cold War-type conflict with China, but there is one lesson to be drawn from the standoff with the Soviet Union: peace through strength.

"The weapons are needed for Taiwan's security and peace," Chen Shui-bian, Taiwan's newly elected president, said Friday about the military hardware Taiwan is requesting. "They are not for war, but for peace."

Following news reports of the classified Pentagon report, Defense Secretary William Cohen says he's "satisfied" that Taiwan is still up to defending itself. That's not what the Pentagon report suggests. Given the Clinton Administration's penchant for stiffing Taiwan, we'd feel safer trusting the judgment of career military specialists.

-- From The Asian Wall Street Journal

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