- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2000

The annual exercise to determine Taiwan's defensive needs resembles Kabuki theater: tense drama surrounding a major actor in an otherwise incomprehensible plot. The major actor is the weapon system that stands as that year's symbol of our commitment to Taiwan. It has been variously the F-16 fighter, submarines, reconnaissance aircraft, and, this year, the Aegis-equipped destroyers the administration has decided not to transfer. But despite the drama, such systems have little to do with our ability to defend Taiwan. That cause would be much better served if Congress were to regularize the U.S.-Taiwan military-to-military relationship with the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which passed the House overwhelmingly and awaits action in the Senate.

Official Washington is at its superficial best when it has distilled a complex issue into a single essential element about which the opposing camps can disagree. Campaign-finance reform: McCain/Feingold is it. If you are against McCain/ Feingold, you are against campaign-finance reform. HMO Reform equals the patient's right to sue a doctor is it. If you favor the right to sue, you favor HMO reform; if not, you don't.

The complicated matter of the U.S. defense commitment to Taiwan has been elevated to shorthand status this year: the Aegis destroyers. If you favor the defense of Taiwan, than you are for the sale of this sophisticated technology to Taiwan. If you are against transferring that technology, then your commitment to Taiwan is suspect.

As with other examples, though, the Aegis metaphor falls well-short of meaningful discussion. It is plain to all that Taiwan is incapable of defending itself against a determined attack from the PRC, and would be regardless of the handful of weapons systems we may be able to transfer. Certainly, the United States would have to become directly involved, and soon if we were to save the island. This is no secret and should surprise no one; indeed, the balance of power in East Asia is centered on this premise.

Given the stakes involved, it is appalling how ill-prepared the United States is for the possibility that we may actually have to take on such a task. There is little meaningful contact between U.S. and Taiwanese military forces for fear within the administration of offending Beijing. Shared doctrine is impossible because of this inability to communicate. Reliable communications links do not exist. War games and other military exercises, de rigeur between the United States and other allies whom we're pledged to defend, are unthinkable given the sensitivity of the U.S.-PRC contretemps.

These are not inconsequential matters. The United States and her NATO allies have spent a half-century hammering out such issues, and there is still plenty of confusion when U.S. and European forces meet to execute a military operation. Regular joint training with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces or troops from the Republic of Korea reveals incompatibilities every time. How likely is it that U.S. forces rushing to defend Taiwan, about which they know or understand virtually nothing, could create an integrated defensive alliance capable of repelling a Chinese assault?

In fact, providing sophisticated weapons systems to the Taiwanese could actually hurt that effort. The Aegis combat system is without peer in the fleets of the world. It is capable of capturing and processing enormous amounts of real-time data to develop targeting solutions of unerring accuracy. But even when large numbers of U.S. Navy Aegis ships operated for the first time together in a combat situation during Operation Desert Storm, their interoperability was not guaranteed. It took tremendous coordination by highly trained American crews to ensure that the combined effect was greater than the sum of its parts. Who knows whether the Aegis-equipped Taiwanese navy would add firepower or just confusion to a joint defensive operation?

This is no argument against the Aegis or any other weapon system. It may well be just what the Taiwanese need, but it is unlikely even the government in Taipei knows what its needs are. Without close communication and coordination with the United States, how could either side be faulted for its inability to distinguish the necessary from the merely desirable? Rather than embracing Aegis or any other weapon system, Congress and the administration should normalize the defensive relationship between the United States and Taiwan by passing the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which will require a certain degree of military-to-military contact between the two. Such boring matters as command and control, communications, intelligence, and military education and training may lack the pizzazz of sophisticated systems like the F-16 or Aegis destroyer. But it is these more workaday contacts, not the sale of big-ticket weapons, that will determine our ability to honor our commitment to Taiwan and preserve our credibility throughout Asia and the Pacific.

Therese Shaheen is president of the U.S. Asia Commercial Development Corporation, with offices in Washington, Taipei, and Seoul.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide