Taiwan Fiddles
August 24, 2005

Taiwan spends a small fortune lobbying Washington so the U.S. will ride to its rescue in case of a Chinese attack. Yet more than four years after the U.S. offered a package of advanced defense weapons, politicians in Taipei still haven't decided to buy them. This isn't helping Taiwan's cause in Washington.

In April 2001, the Bush administration reversed the Clinton policy and offered Patriot anti-missile batteries, anti-submarine aircraft and diesel submarines. It did so at some diplomatic risk, since China has objected to the sale. But Taiwan clearly needs a stronger deterrent given China's military buildup, which includes more missiles targeting the island and aggressive submarine activity. China passed an anti-secession law in March, mandating force if Taiwan rejects "peaceful reunification."

But legislators in Taiwan have blocked any purchase plan proposed by President Chen Shui-bian. Some opposition politicians have even accused the U.S. of using the arms sales as a pretext to pursue a hidden agenda of demonizing China. Lien Chan, until last week chairman of the main opposition party, has argued the country can't afford the $15 billion price tag. But this doesn't wash for an island with per-capita income of $13,000 a year.

Mr. Lien, as it happens, was given red-carpet treatment during a high-profile visit to Beijing in April. A month later, he rebuffed a plea from 33 U.S. Congressmen to end his party's obstruction of the bill now before Taiwan's legislature and approve special funding for the arms purchases. Mr. Lien instead blamed President Chen for waiting three years before submitting the funding request in June 2004. Opposition parties, which run the legislature, have used procedural tactics to block the funding bill at least 26 times.

The good news is that the recent Pentagon report on China's military has put opponents on the defensive by highlighting how Taiwan risks "being quickly overwhelmed" by Beijing's rapidly modernizing forces. And Mr. Lien has been succeeded as KMT chairman by Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou, who seems to understand the urgency of the arms purchases.

The problem is that while Taiwan dawdles, China keeps modernizing its military. The 2001 U.S. offer, while still useful, may require upgrading if Taiwan truly wants the capability to hold off an invading force long enough to allow the U.S. to intervene. Given Taiwan's half-hearted response to the current arms offer, there's little point in considering a fresh one now. But if Taiwan wants the U.S. to risk its blood and treasure in the event of an attack, paying for an adequate defense would seem to be a minimum prerequisite.


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