August 1, 2007 | Commentary on Asia
After four years of complaining that Taiwan hasn't bought the advanced weapon systems that the Bush administration approved in April 2001, the State Department appears unwilling now, at long last, to take "yes" for an answer.
In June, Taiwan's Legislative Yuan finally approved multiyear procurement of P-3 Orion submarine hunter aircraft (about $1.3 billion), the Patriot PAC-2 GEM anti-ballistic missile batteries (another $800 million), and some additional small change for a submarine "feasibility study" ($6 million).
Taiwan's letters of request (LoRs) are at the Pentagon. As a bonus, Taiwan's lawmakers approved start-up funding for 66 new F-16C/D fighter jets to replace aging F-5s. The fighter replacement program would be about $3.5 billion. Pentagon officials (not to mention defense contractors) were ecstatic. But not the State Department.
State Department officers now tell the Pentagon they don't want the package to move. They say they fear approving the package might "embolden" Taiwan's president to move ahead with a local referendum on Taiwan's entry into the United Nations.
(It is an inconvenient truth, however, that public pressure for the "referendum" convinced even Taiwan's opposition parties that continuing to block defense funds would lose them votes in next January's election, so delaying the Taiwan defense package isn't likely to "embolden" Taiwan's polity any more than it already is).
Internally, State Department officials acknowledge that the eagerness of Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state, to get something concrete out of his North Korean denuclearization efforts means he will not entertain any policy decision that might anger Beijing. And Taiwan weapon sales are a sure-fire way for the State Department to get an agitated visit from the Chinese ambassador.
Taiwan's LoRs for the P-3s and the PAC-2 GEM have been in the Pentagon for weeks. The Pentagon has prepared the congressional notification package and now awaits the green light from the State Department to notify Congress (it needs a 20-day informal and 30-day formal notification period, after which the contract packages go to Taiwan for signature and the funds).
Unhappily, so much time has passed since President Bush's April 2001 approval of a multibillion-dollar "Big Bang" arms package that the U.S. bureaucracy has gotten out of the habit of moving Taiwan defense cases. A $750 million package of Kidd-class destroyers (part of the Big Bang list) was approved in 2002; a $1.8 billion phased-array ABM radar package was approved in 2004.
In fact, despite the delays in some Big Bang purchases, Taiwan remained one of America's top defense customers into 2006.
And in March, the Bush administration approved a $400 million contract for Taiwan air-to-air missiles - seemingly pushed by the Pentagon - over State Department objections, as a demonstration of American anger at China's anti-satellite weapon test in January.
But if the Bush administration is to avoid giving Beijing a veto over America's strategic relationships in Asia (like Taiwan, Japan is facing similar resistance from the State Department in its request for the F-22 fighter), it must rebuild its military ties with key Asian allies. Notifying Congress of the Taiwan P-3 Orion and PAC-2 GEM missile defense batteries - and moving on Taipei's request for more F-16s - would be a start.
"The key," one anonymous administration official told me, "is to move the existing [Taiwan] cases, we [must] now get them notified to the Hill; the PRC is going to scream, but then they always scream."
The trick, he said, is to "get everybody back into the habit of approving Taiwan arms sales." Once that's done, he observed, "then we can move with the F-16s ... but people in Taiwan know that's the dynamic ... the F-16 money isn't going to be available after September."
Taiwan's pro-China politicians cleverly stipulated the F-16 money would be canceled after Oct. 1 if the U.S. failed to respond.
A package of 66 new F-16C/Ds for Taiwan, worth about $4 billion, is absolutely essential to keeping Taiwan's Air Force credible in the Strait. Taiwan's 250 aging F-5Es are at the end of their 25-year service lives and must be replaced. Holding up their approval because of anxieties about China is - arguably - illegal.
In the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, Congress specifically mandated that the "President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan." There is no room for the administration to debate the definitions of the words "shall" or "solely." "Shall" means it must be done, and "solely" means the administration may not, under any circumstances, consider China's reactions to the sale of any given defense package to Taiwan.
President Reagan insisted in 1982 that "it is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Both in quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan's defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained."
Reagan termed this concept "a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy."
This raises grave questions about the Bush administration's Asia policy. Are Washington's defense sales to key U.S. allies in Asia being held hostage to China's preferences? China is the rising military power in the Western Pacific, a fact appreciated all too well in Tokyo and Taipei.
Washington can play with its diplomacy in other areas, but it must not sacrifice Taiwan's or Japan's defense preparedness on the altar of dubious "cooperation" with Beijing. If it does, it really ought to let Taipei (and Tokyo for that matter) know so they can start making separate plans - and they may be plans Washington will not like.
John Tkacik a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., is a retired officer in the U.S. foreign service who served in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Taipei.
First appeared in the Defense News