- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2001

When he takes office Jan. 20, President-elect George W. Bush will have a lot of mopping up to do in the realm of foreign policy. Perhaps the most incendiary issue confronting the new administration is America's looming confrontation with China over Taiwan.

While it is commonly assumed that the Korean peninsula is the likeliest place for U.S. forces to be involved in hostilities (at least in East Asia), the chances of war in Taiwan are probably greater. This is true for several reasons.

For starters, North Korean military capabilities have been degraded in many respects by the severe economic slide in that country for nearly a decade. Though the North Korean threat remains very real, North Korea is a failing power and is probably less able to wage sustained combat operations today than it was seven or eight years ago.

Second, deterrence works, and the United States has in place a very powerful deterrent in Korea with 37,000 troops and an iron-clad security guarantee contained in the U.S.-South Korean Mutual Defense Treaty.

This contrasts sharply with the developing situation in the Taiwan Strait.

Unlike North Korea, Communist China is a rising power, embarked on a massive military buildup. For 11 years running, China's military budget has increased by double digit percentages. These bulging budgets, subsidized by trade dollars from the United States and cheap loans from the World Bank, are being used to procure a raft of advanced and dangerous weaponry.

One needs only to listen to Chinese officials or read the Communist-controlled press for a day to know why China was embarked on this threatening military spending binge: the intimidation and ultimate subjugation of democratic Taiwan.

Just last month, Communist Chinese leader Jiang Zemin reportedly stated: "It is imperative to step up preparations for a military struggle so as to promote the early solution of the Taiwan issue. To this end, it is necessary to vigorously develop some 'trump card' weapons and equipment.

Make no mistake, China today is more able, and more willing, to use force against Taiwan than it was 10 years ago."

Unfortunately, that increased threat is not being countered by an adequate deterrent. Unlike in Korea, there are no U.S. troops on Taiwan, and there is no guarantee that we will help defend the island, having abrogated our defense treaty with Taiwan in 1980.

Furthermore, total U.S. force structure has been decimated by the Clinton administration. Thus, any U.S. forces dedicated to Taiwan in the event of hostilities will take days to get there and will have to be robbed from other missions, some of which (even in the Clinton era) involve vital American interests.

The preparedness of Taiwan's defense forces is also in doubt. Successive administrations have denied several badly-needed defense requests from Taiwan, solely to appease China. Moreover, it has now been more than 20 years since Taiwan has engaged in a joint military exercise with another country. Operating in such isolation, Taiwan's military cannot avoid being behind the curve when it comes to modern military metods.

U.S. policy compounds Taiwan's problems by maintaining several outmoded restrictions on military contacts between our countries:

No U.S. military officer above the rank of O-6 can set foot on Taiwan. The United States routinely sells sophisticated military equipment to Taiwan, but defense officials are often prohibited from engaging in detailed discussions with their Taiwan counterparts on how to use the equipment. When the United States sent aircraft carriers to Taiwan during the 1996 missile crisis, it was revealed that there are no direct, secure communication links between our militaries. Why not? Because to implement this common sense, life-saving idea would be seen by the dictators in Beijing as an infringement on the sacred "One China" policy.

A tyrannical aggressor engaged in a military buildup and advertising his hostile intentions. A small democracy under the gun. A complacent democratic power disarming, in retreat and appeasing the tyrant.

All of this, if not corrected soon, is a classic recipe for war.

Fortunately, Mr. Bush has signaled that he understands the problem. He has rejected President Clinton's fatuous notion of China as a strategic partner. Mr. Bush has pledged to build missile defenses with our Asian allies. And importantly, he has had the courage to think outside the box by supporting the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA).

I authored the TSEA, along with Sen. Robert Torricelli, precisely to redress some of the aforementioned gaps in our deterrent posture in Taiwan. The TSEA requires close consultation with Congress on defense sales to Taiwan, upgraded military ties with Taipei, the removal of restrictions on U.S. military travel to Taiwan and the establishment of better communications between our militaries.

Along with a restoration of overall U.S. military power, early implementation of the provisions of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act by the Bush administration will be vital in lowering the chances of American men and women having to fight in the Taiwan Strait.

Jesse Helms, North Carolina Republican, is chairman of the Senate International Relations Committee.

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