- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2001

TAIPEI, Taiwan Yeh Chi-tsung, 30, a bank clerk, stood in the rain along Nanking Road yesterday and pondered the price he believes Taiwan will pay for the release of the 24 U.S. military fliers held in China.
"The U.S. probably won't sell us advanced weapons," Mr. Yeh said, shaking his head. "But this is China's fault. The U.S. should never apologize."
In the nearly two weeks since a Chinese jet fighter collided with a U.S. Navy EP-3E reconnaissance plane over international waters, a palpable anxiety has settled over this tiny, democratic island-state, considered a breakaway province by mainland communists.
"This is like standing close to a fight between two elephants," said Yung Wei, a political science professor at National Chiao-Tung University. "Taiwan has to be careful not to get stepped on."
As a result, reaction here in the capital has been muted, without public comment from President Chen Shui-bian. After yesterday's announcement that the U.S. crew would be released, the Taiwan Foreign Ministry issued a one-sentence statement: "We were pleased to hear that the 24 U.S. crew will be freed."
There has been little drum-beating in the local press. Equally cautious reactions have come from other U.S. allies in the region: Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and South Korea. The quiet pragmatism is a reflection of the need to balance relationships with the United States, the world's only superpower, and China, an emerging economic and regional power.
The standoff over the U.S. plane, which was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island after the April 1 collision, could not have come at a more delicate time for Taiwan. Each spring, Washington reviews Taipei's military-hardware needs. This year's wish list includes naval destroyers equipped with advanced Aegis anti-missile radar systems, a sale Beijing vehemently opposes.
Proponents of the sale of the Aegis and high-tech Patriot anti-missile weapons argue that China's aggressive stance in the current crisis and its more belligerent posture in recent years in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait justifies the new weapons. But the package Taiwan wants wouldn't be ready for six years or more.
"It's more a political symbol than an immediate military tool," said Andrew Yang, a political analyst at the Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. "The message it conveys, that the U.S. is strengthening its tie to Taiwan, ignoring China's wishes, is very immediate."
Chang Chang-lin, 50, a building contractor strolling past a downtown Starbucks coffee shop, hopes that is exactly the message President Bush sends.
"The plane incident probably means more arms sales to Taiwan," Mr. Chang said. "I like that Bush took a tough attitude. America has been too weak with China in the past."
Mr. Bush sees China as a competitor, with whom the United States shares some common interests. His predecessor tried to engage China as a "strategic partner." Difficult issues divide Beijing and Washington, including a proposed U.S. missile-defense system and continuing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
The events of the past two weeks have plunged U.S.-China relations to their lowest point since since the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
Later this month, Mr. Bush will be expected to decide on weapons systems for Taiwan, with fresh memories of the current crisis on his mind and on the minds of congressmen just returning from recess.
"Taiwan becomes a card played by Washington or Beijing," said Thomas B. Lee, dean of the college of international studies at Tamkang University in Taipei. "On the surface, things seem cool here. But beneath that, there is a lot of anxiety."
Many of the same people who appreciate U.S. support for Taiwan also wonder if the reconnaissance flights so close to China are provocative.
"Why fly so close to China?" asked Mike Wang, 48, a trader. "Nobody gets that close to America. The U.S. wouldn't tolerate it."


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