Cover Story

Armed but not dangerous

President Bush's approval of new arms for Taiwan sends a non-Clintonesque message to Beijing

Issue: "Target: Taiwan," May 5, 2001

in Washington-Believers in the transformative powers of trade approach China like Aesop's fable of the sun and the wind battling to persuade a man to take off his coat. All the anti-Communist complaining about human rights and religious persecution will not bring China to freedom like the warm sun of economic engagement, they say. But in the wake of China's aggressive role in downing and detaining the crew of an American surveillance plane on Hainan Island, the regime's most noticeable current possession is not a coat, but a battery of missiles pointed at Taiwan. Within the next few years, the so-called "People's Liberation Army" could have 1,000 ballistic and land-attack cruise missiles poised to intimidate what they regard as a renegade province. The Russians have sold China two squadrons of SU-27 fighter jets to challenge Taiwan's air supremacy and four Russian Sovremenny-class destroyers. In addition, the Chinese regime has a submarine fleet of more than 80 nuclear- and diesel-powered vessels. China's rulers want to dominate the South China Sea and displace American power and influence in Asia. In response to this growing threat, President Bush signaled a shift from Clinton-era China policy by agreeing to sell Taiwan weapons to answer a part of Beijing's military buildup. China quickly disparaged the deal as "suicidal." Mr. Bush did not award Taiwan the top item on its shopping list-Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with the sophisticated Aegis missile-defense system-but he reserved the right to revisit that decision at a later time. What the president called "the right package for the moment" included four Kidd-class destroyers, a dozen P-3 anti-submarine planes, and as many as eight diesel-powered submarines. The Kidd-class ships-developed for the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s shortly before he was deposed, but then implemented into the U.S. Navy until the late '90s-could be available by 2003, providing a more immediate defense than the Aegis system, which the administration estimates would take until 2010 to build. Conservatives who fear Mr. Bush is too soft toward China's rulers insisted that the Aegis system was a litmus test for whether the package was serious, and worried that the submarine commitment could be just public relations if Dutch and German leaders refuse to share their diesel submarine designs. But the president's new military commitment to Taiwan was a dramatic shift away from the unsympathetic stance of President Clinton, who refused to sell Taiwan any weapons that would upset Beijing. (The last major arms deal for Taiwan, for fighter planes, was approved in 1992.) Mr. Bush even told ABC "the Chinese must understand" that the United States would defend Taiwan with whatever it took, including the might of American forces. White House spokesmen uniformly dismissed any connection between the Taiwan arms package and the Hainan Island incident, declaring that the package was solely designed to meet Taiwan's defense needs under the Taiwan Relations Act. But there's no doubt that Chinese belligerence backfired by making an arms package of some kind almost universally popular in Washington. Just weeks ago, Chinese leader Jiang Zemin jauntily told The Washington Post he was confident "this major obstacle to the stable development of China-U.S. relations will be removed." He blamed the United States as the reason "the Taiwan question has remained unresolved [read: unconquered] for so long." Like Mr. Jiang, some Washington pundits believed Mr. Bush would embrace a liberal policy, but conservatives on the president's national-security team, including Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's national-security aide and chief of staff, pushed hard. Liberals who disparage any military buildups were disappointed when even Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle applauded the deal and disparaged the Chinese reaction. House minority leader Dick Gephardt said the "sizable buildup" in China raised "serious questions regarding the Bush administration's decision not to provide destroyers equipped with advanced command and control systems to Taiwan." (Mr. Gephardt, with ties to labor unions, is often critical of China. Many labor leaders are critical of trade with China in part because lower labor costs allow the Chinese to produce certain goods more cheaply than U.S. industries can.) Normally voluble liberal politicians like Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer were noticeably quiet. Congressional Republicans were not unanimous on Taiwan policy. For example, Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas worried out loud about whether selling Taiwan the Aegis system would require American servicemen to operate it, and whether it was too large a thumb in China's eye. But Maryland Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, an Aegis-sale booster who recently returned from a trip to Taiwan, told WORLD that Taiwan has sizable support in Congress, as indicated by a letter signed by 102 legislators urging Mr. Bush to approve the Aegis sale. Mr. Bartlett said he could abide the administration's Aegis delay, as long as the administration sent a strong signal that the United States would not "allow these people to be dragged kicking and screaming into reunification." But he wondered if the administration couldn't take another step: "Why can't we take the Aegis system to the Taiwanese military, and introduce them into how to use it, using our own boats?" Mr. Bartlett and many other congressmen worry that a "reunified" Taiwan would give China the equivalent of an unsinkable aircraft carrier for further military intimidation, and a potential blockade to halt shipments of oil and raw materials to U.S. allies, including Japan. That's in addition to China gaining Taiwan's industrial and technological advances. Conservative experts on the Asian military situation were divided on the degree of optimism on the shift in policy. Larry Wortzel of the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center told WORLD the submarines were an important component of the package, since previous administrations have classified subs as offensive, rather than defensive weapons. (However, he politely stated he "will be very impressed" if the administration figures out how to get the diesel submarine designs from the Dutch or the Germans.) He also noted that while the Aegis could be the basis for a future missile defense, the four Kidd-class destroyers combined are cheaper than one of the Aegis ships. Richard Fisher of the Jamestown Foundation, who is currently writing a book on China's army, painted WORLD a dark picture about the emerging Chinese threat. "Conservatives within the administration scored a real victory, and deserve credit. But Taiwan has needed these weapons for decades." He scorned the Aegis delay, because if the Chinese attacked Taiwan with their Russian-made destroyers, there's currently no way for Taiwan to take out China's Sunburn missiles except by sinking the ships, which would escalate any war. Mr. Fisher fears that missile-based missile defenses like the Aegis may be outdated by the end of the decade, and "we need to either fund a crash development program for lasers, or we have to start thinking about selling Taiwan an offensive capability." His question: Will we equip Taiwan to resist China, or will we have to send American men and women to do it for them? Comfortable assumptions about America's technological edge on China are also dangerous, Mr. Fisher added. "For 20 years, they've been investing in the next generation of military technologies-space warfare, radio frequency weapons, germ warfare, new and advanced subs, lasers. Anything that the American military is focusing on, the Chinese may get there before we do." The Chinese regime views America as its chief adversary in the world, but a weak and declining one. Author Michael Pillsbury reviewed thousands of internal Chinese documents for his book, China Debates the Future Security Environment, and found Chinese strategists believe that four new powers-Russia, Europe, Japan, and China-are emerging, and that their rise will effectively end America's predominance. They believe that U.S. fear of incurring casualties is a powerful constraint on any military action and that new Chinese military capabilities can frighten Washington into backing away from its Asian commitments. But President Bush's approval of a measured Taiwan arms package, complete with a pledge to revisit more advanced weapons systems if the Chinese act aggressively, is sending a different message. Mr. Bush's Department of Defense plans a new era of military-to-military communication with Taiwan's military leaders, who have often been isolated from international consultation. A new approach that offers Taiwan technical briefings and support may be as unpopular with China's rulers as the weapon sales. President Bush's aides have been drilled not to poison the administration's image of sincerity by telling reporters or pundits how the White House is calculating or calibrating any current event for political gain. But the ebb and flow of events out of the Hainan Island incident have solidified Mr. Bush's credibility in crisis situations and international affairs. For now, he wants a sunshine policy toward China but is ready to blow a cold wind, and Washington is in a warm mood about his foreign policy goals.

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