China’s military buildup opposite Taiwan is destabilizing the region, and in response, the United States is considering selling sea-based missile defenses to the island nation, Pentagon and State Department officials say.
Richard Lawless, deputy assistant defense secretary for Asia, said during a Friday hearing that Taiwan is threatened by China’s military buildup and lacks defenses.
“Our defense relationship with Taiwan seeks to reverse negative trends in this ability to defend itself, possibly obviating the need for massive U.S. intervention in a crisis scenario,” Mr. Lawless told the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional panel.
“If deterrence fails, Taiwan is supported by the U.S. and its allies,” he said. “We must be prepared to swiftly defeat [China’s] use of force.”
Commission Chairman Roger Robinson said China has some 500 missiles targeted at Taiwan and is adding up to 75 a year.
Mr. Robinson asked whether the missile threat will lead to the sale to Taiwan of U.S. Aegis battle-management ships armed with sea-based missile defenses.
“We’re, of course, well aware of this issue,” Mr. Lawless said. “It’s been on the table for some time. I think that in due course, it will be addressed by the administration.”
Mr. Lawless, however, said the Pentagon is working with Taiwan officials to help them buy weapons approved for sale in the past.
The Pentagon is privately urging Taiwan to buy advanced Patriot PAC-3 antimissile systems, defense officials say. Sea-based missile defenses are under development.
Taiwan is considering purchasing Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, submarines and antisubmarine aircraft.
Randy Shriver, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said at the hearing that China’s military buildup is a concern to the United States.
Mr. Shriver disclosed that during the visit in December of Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, President Bush told the Chinese leader that a crisis in the Taiwan Strait would “very likely” involve U.S. forces.
“We think the missile threat and the missile challenge is extremely serious, and we’ve been engaged with the Taiwan authorities and our interlocutors on the serious nature of it and what we think needs to be done to address it,” Mr. Shriver said.
Mr. Shriver said aspects of Beijing’s military buildup appeared designed to project power and to “coerce Taiwan.”
He said the missile deployments are the “most significant concern.”
Mr. Lawless said the capabilities of the Chinese missiles also are improving.
The hundreds of missiles appear part of a Beijing effort to have “an expanded range, or a menu, if you will, of options that allow it to systematically coerce” Taiwan, he said.
The missiles give Beijing alternatives to conducting an amphibious invasion, he said.
The two officials appeared to differ slightly on Taiwan’s plan to hold two referendums on national defense.
Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian has called for two votes in March: on whether the island should buy more advanced weapons if China refuses to pull back its missiles, and whether to pursue talks with Beijing.
China has criticized the referendum as a step toward independence, which it regards as tantamount to a declaration of war. Taiwan is a de facto independent nation that split from the mainland in 1949, but China regards the island as a breakaway province.
Mr. Shriver said referendums normally settle divisive issues and these two ballot questions “don’t seem to fall into that category.”
Mr. Lawless, however, said Taiwan must mobilize its population to support spending and policies for improved defenses.
Without mentioning the referendums, he said, “There does need to be an improved national consensus.”
Mr. Bush appeared to favor Beijing’s position during the Wen visit.