Trouble in Taipei

Self-reliance is a great American virtue. Let's export it to Taiwan by selling the Taiwanese some weapons, so they can defend themselves from their "big brother" across the strait.

The United States and Taiwan have enjoyed a de facto alliance for nearly sixty years. President George W. Bush once threatened to intervene militarily against China in any conflict with Taiwan.

Of late, however, his administration has adopted appeasement as its preferred strategy towards Beijing, putting arms sales to Taiwan on hold. The policy is intended to pacify the People's Republic of China (PRC), but failing to equip Taipei with the weapons necessary for its defense is provocative and dangerous. The less able Taiwan is to deter Beijing from attempting to forcibly unify the two states, the more likely the United States will end up in conflict with the PRC.

The saga of the so-called Republic of China runs back more than a century and is tied up with the 1949 communist revolution. The last two Taiwanese presidents, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Sui-bian, moved away from the claim that Taipei represented one China towards the claim that Taiwan was independent. Beijing responded belligerently and Washington distanced itself from Taipei, viewing President Chen, in particular, as needlessly provocative.

Earlier this year Taiwanese voters gave Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang Party (KMT) back the presidency along with an overwhelming legislative majority. Taiwan's new president, Ma Ying-jeou, inaugurated in May, has promoted détente with China, and Beijing dropped its policy of isolation, adopted during Chen's presidency.

The two governments have been busy over the last four months. They have held direct talks and initiated direct and charter flights between China and Taiwan. Taipei has ended its ban on Chinese tourists, relaxed its restrictions on Taiwanese investment in China and its ban on Chinese investment in Taiwanese companies. Taipei also has retreated from its aggressive diplomatic campaign of seeking independent recognition.

"We are very happy we have a new direction," said Chang Liang-jen, deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, in charge of Taipei's relations with China: "We are developing a détente, and loosening relations between the two sides." Liang Guanglie, China's defense minister, dropped his government's usual bellicosity and observed: "The Taiwan situation has undergone positive changes. The development of relations between the two sides faces a rare historical opportunity."

There is more to come. The two states are discussing direct shipping links and cross-strait banking, as well as "fly-beyond" rights, which would allow Taiwanese airlines to fly to China and then to another country, rather than back to Taiwan. Political talks are possible.

Taipei is using the improved atmosphere across the Taiwan Strait to better relations with the United States. His nation is no longer a "troublemaker" engaging in "provocative" behavior, says Jason Yuan, head of the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office (the island state's de facto ambassador to the United States). Yuan explained that President Ma "feels [China and Taiwan] should not challenge each other." Charles Freeman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies speaks of a "sea change in the warmth of relations between Washington and Taipei."

Although the Bush administration began in Taiwan's corner-in early 2001 President George W. Bush essentially promised that the United States would defend the island state from Chinese attack-the administration shifted toward Beijing after 9/11. Washington wanted the PRC's assistance in dealing with terrorism, waging war against Afghanistan and Iraq, and ending Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs. The Chen government's drive for quasi-independence caused the Bush administration to put Taipei relations into deep freeze, even returning to Clinton administration policies of restricting transit visas for Taiwan's president when he sought to fly to Latin America via America.

Ironically, while Washington is now friendlier to Taipei, the underlying improvement in U.S.-China relations appears to have made the Bush administration more reluctant to provide Taiwan with arms. In 2001, the administration offered a $12 billion weapons package, including command, control, and communications systems, Patriot missile defense batteries, anti-tank missiles, diesel-electric submarines, Kidd-class destroyers, Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, and P3C anti-submarine warfare aircraft. The KMT-dominated legislature blocked most of the purchases as part of internecine political combat against the Chen government, approving the money only last year. Around the same time Taipei requested sixty-six F-16 C/D fighters for $4.9 billion.

However, fulfillment of the original arms package has stalled, while the Bush administration has refused to even accept the formal paperwork necessary for the F-16 sales. It is widely thought that the Bush administration has frozen arms sales to Taiwan. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack denied it, unpersuasively citing an ongoing "interagency process" which has yet to achieve "the final decision" as the reason for the delay. Admiral Timothy Keating, head of the United States Pacific Command, said "we are committed to the defense of Taiwan," but "there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this moment, arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we're talking about." He said he was far more comfortable than last year "that it is very, very, very unlikely that there will be conflict across the straight."