The chasm between the Clinton-Gore White House and congressional Republicans has never been greater than it is on the question of arms sales to Taiwan.
The administration’s refusal to sell Taiwan the four Aegis destroyers it wants to buy has produced cries of outrage from Congress. Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, accused the White House and State Department of “knee-jerk appeasement” of China, while Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, is trying to bring to a vote the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act to restore U.S. military ties with Taiwan.
Mr. Helms was angered by the Defense Department’s quick retreat from its earlier position in support of the sale of Aegis ships to Taiwan. But that was only to be expected. Defense Secretary William Cohen took the destroyers off the table even before the showdown meeting in the White House. How could he, a former Republican senator, stand up to National Security Adviser Samuel Berger and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, both longtime Friends of Bill and apologists for Beijing and Moscow?
After months of searching for a formula for arms sales to Taiwan that would not make Beijing mad, the administration found one. Taiwan wants to buy a Pave Paws long-range radar to monitor Chinese missile launches, but the administration agreed only to discuss a shorter-range radar, and will decide later how powerful it can be (wink, wink to Beijing). In addition, Taiwan can buy the air-to-air missiles it has long sought for its F-16 fighters provided by President Bush, but the missiles will be stored in the United States (more winks).
Taiwan also will be sold upgrades of air-launched anti-ship and anti-tank missiles it already has. But not the Aegis destroyers, submarines, anti-submarine patrol planes, and Patriot PAC-3 missile interceptors it needs to confront the mainland’s rapidly improving naval, air and missile forces. Beijing played its part in the administration’s charade and protested only mildly.
But the same day, Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, completing a visit to China, was telling the press that China’s leaders were complaining that ambiguity about “one China” had allowed Taiwan to slip toward independence. Beijing, he said, no longer will tolerate ambiguity and instead will “go all the way.” If Taiwan declares independence, “military action will be taken immediately.”
China’s position is clear it will go to war to gain control of Taiwan. But Washington’s remains shrouded in ambiguity. The sale of Aegis destroyers would have made it clear the U.S. will help Taiwan defend itself. Now that remains in doubt, and the People’s Liberation Army generals who have been urging “tough and immediate action against Taiwan” will be convinced the U.S. will not stand in their way.
Taiwan’s fears are real. The mainland has supersonic cruise missiles and 200 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, and is building up to 800. New Russian destroyers with supersonic anti-ship missiles are joining the Chinese fleet. China’s 66 submarines include four Russian Kilo-class subs, and just two weeks ago the Hong Kong press revealed that China now is producing its own Kilo-class submarines, with 75-mile range anti-ship cruise missiles. The first Chinese-built Kilo has joined the fleet and is “combat ready against Taiwan.”
To face these modern Russian weapons Taiwan asked for submarines, long-range patrol planes, and four Aegis destroyers and got none of them. The administration says they would upset the balance of power, which is ridiculous.These weapons are needed to maintain the balance of power. Besides, they cannot be delivered overnight.
It would take up to five years for Aegis destroyers to be built and delivered and the crews trained, and even longer to add sea-based ballistic missile defenses. That would come close to the 2007 deadline some Chinese leaders are proposing for the takeover of Taiwan. But just agreeing to sell Taiwan Aegis ships would send the message Beijing needs to hear.
There may still be time, but not much, for Congress and the next president to avoid war in Asia. Congress should tie the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act to the bill to establish normal trade relations with China and pass it as a package. Avoiding war is the main consideration. If there is war, there will be no trade with China.
It is time to show some spine and stop appeasing the mainland regime. The next president should be prepared to tell Beijing it must renounce the use of force if it wants normal relations, and back up those words by selling Taiwan the arms it needs for self-defense.
James T. Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times based in San Diego.