- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2000

The Clinton administration's recent decisions on arms sales to Taiwan came amidst the publicized debate between the administration and its critics, and the reported debate between the Pentagon and the White House, over how best to support Taiwan's security.

This debate intensified in response to China's deployment of 200 missiles opposite Taiwan and projections that the number will reach 600 to 800 by 2005. An added factor was China's White Paper, issued in February, in which China threatened to use military force if Taiwan delayed negotiations on reunification.

Despite the intensification of the debate, it has remained within certain boundaries. The debate over weapons systems is limited to the kind of systems to be sold to Taiwan. All these weapons systems are defensive systems with a heavy emphasis on anti-missile defense systems. There also is a long-range time perspective: Aegis destroyers that Taiwan would not take possession of for five years and a theater missile defense system that could not be put in place for 10 years and perhaps 15.

The debate largely omits consideration of threats and responses in the near term, especially the timeframe of China's missile buildup. In contrast, Chinese officials said after the issuance of the White Paper that China would give Taiwan three to five years to accept its negotiating terms. After Chen Shui-bian's election as Taiwan's president in March, Chinese officials reportedly said they would give him a few months to accept their terms.

There also are questions regarding the effectiveness of the weapons systems proposed for Taiwan. China may be able to overwhelm any missile defense system with a mass attack of hundreds of missiles. None of the systems being debated would give Taiwan the capability to conduct counterstrikes against the launch sites of Chinese military operations.

The debate has contained no discussion of that old but crucial concept of deterrence, especially the question: If China continues to build up its military power opposite Taiwan, what combination of military and diplomatic measures would provide the highest probability of deterring China from deciding on the military option?

The limitations of the debate will not be altered so long as it pays no attention to the issue of the adequacy of the U.S. force structure in the Western Pacific to influence the situation in the Taiwan Strait. No future decisions on arms sales to Taiwan will replace two fundamental roles that only U.S. forces in the Western Pacific can play. Only U.S. forces would have the capabilities to respond immediately to a Chinese attack by striking at bases and missiles launch sites that would be the sources of the attack, thus limiting the damage to Taiwan. Equally, and perhaps most important, only U.S. forces would constitute an effective deterrence against a Chinese decision to use military force. If China continues to escalate its threats and military buildup, Beijing will examine closely the indicators of U.S. intent and military capabilities. Chinese analysts and policy-makers increasingly will link U.S. intent with U.S. military capabilities in the region, especially if, as expected, the United States continues its policy of maintaining ambiguity regarding its commitment to Taiwan's defense.

The need for debate and consideration of this issue stems from a central fact: The current U.S. force structure in the Western Pacific is not capable of responding quickly and effectively to a Chinese attack on Taiwan, especially a massive missile and air attack that Chinese military strategists reportedly are stressing in their planning. Under a 1995 policy of maintaining 100,000 U.S. military personnel in the Western Pacific, the current force structure is intended primarily to reassure U.S. allies of U.S. commitments. U.S. forces are designed to fight a ground war on the Korean Peninsula and thus include about 50,000 ground troops.

U.S. air and naval forces available for a Taiwan contingency are thin: one carrier battle groups with about 65 fighter aircraft, about 100 fighters in Japan and no heavy bombers (withdrawn from Guam in 1991). The 1996 tensions in the Taiwan Strait illustrated this inadequacy when the 7th Fleet had to swing a carrier thousands of miles from the Western Indian Ocean, taking several days, in order to assemble a two-carrier force off Taiwan. The inadequacy also is pointed up by comparison with the U.S. naval and air forces in the Persian Gulf conflict in 1991 (six carrier battle groups and about 880 combat aircraft) and near Yugoslavia in 1999 (323 strike aircraft, combined with 213 allied strike aircraft).

The static nature of the U.S. force structure in the Western Pacific now is in the context of a major strategic shift in the region. The Taiwan Strait is superceding Korea as the most likely military threat to U.S. security interests. This is due not only to the Chinese military buildup opposite Taiwan and prospects it will continue but the substantial decline in North Korean conventional military capabilities facing South Korea: obsolete offensive weaponry, declining big unit military exercises, marginal supplies of fuel and food, poor morale, and the deteriorating physical and mental state of North Korean draftees owing to a decade of malnutrition.

North Korea appears no longer capable of launching a massive invasion across the Demilitarized Zone. There is evidence North Korean political and military leaders are well aware of this situation. The loss of the invasion option greatly limits Pyongyang's options for using missiles and nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies.

The current "100,000 man" policy robs the United States of flexibility to reorient U.S. forces to the new strategic situation. A continuation of the "100,000 man" policy in the face of a continuation of China's military buildup facing Taiwan will create the crucial danger of an erosion of deterrence. Recent history reminds us of the failure of the United States to strengthen military forces near the Persian Gulf in 1991 in order to deter Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait.

Regardless of the scale of future arms sales to Taiwan, the real U.S. policy choice is:

(1) Continue the existing Western Pacific force structure and hope that China's admission to the World Trade Organization and economic ties with the United States will soften Chinese policy toward Taiwan. This is a risky bet.

(2) Restructure U.S. forces by adding considerably more air and naval forces that could include at least one more carrier battle group, additional strike fighters and tomahawk missile launching submarines, and heavy bombers. This undoubtedly would require reductions in U.S. ground forces in Japan to balance the burden to Japan of basing new U.S. air and naval units.

A fundamental restructuring of U.S. forces in the Western Pacific would involve major planning, basing, and financial decisions. The issue thus needs to be a central element in the U.S. debate over Taiwan policy.

Larry Niksch is a specialist in Asian affairs for the Congressional Research Service.

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