After more than seven years of waiting, there is reason to
celebrate the final approval of a $6.4 billion U.S. arms sale to
Taiwan. Unfortunately, there is less to this package than meets the
eye. Rather than addressing Taipei's deteriorating military balance
against China's rapidly modernizing and expanding forces, these
approvals provide gasps of new oxygen to Taiwan's aging defenses,
which were starved of air initially by domestic politics and then,
for the last year, by Washington's concern about Beijing's ire.
Indeed, for the most part, the sales seem to be designed around
a new standard: providing no capability that Taiwan does not
already have and about which Chinese protests will be perfunctory.
For instance, the sale provides upgrades and repairs of existing
systems and gives Taiwan new weapons to use against Chinese ground
forces in the unlikely event that the People's Liberation Army
decides to invade by way of Taiwan's beaches.
The White House also pointedly turned down requests to provide
the two systems that Taiwan really needs to dissuade Chinese forces
from an attack: upgraded F-16C/D fighter aircraft to maintain the
air balance and design work on modern diesel-electric submarines
that can challenge Chinese surface invaders.
PAC-3 Missile Defense
The sale does, however, provide one breakthrough: The Bush
Administration's approval of 330 Patriot "Advanced Capability"
missiles known as the PAC-3s. These missiles give Taiwan its first
true defense against China's swelling short-range ballistic missile
(SRBM) fleets--1,400 at last count--arrayed against Taiwan.
Yet, even here, the Bush White House directed that Taiwan's
initial request of 384 missiles be cut by 15 percent--for no
military reason. Pentagon war-planners currently calculate the
"kill rate" for PAC-3s against incoming Chinese Dongfeng SRBMs at
about nine-in-10. They have also modulated operational doctrine
from the older firing of two missile rounds at an incoming attack
missile ("shoot-shoot-look") to a "shoot-look-shoot" tactic (fire
one round at the incoming, check to see if the trajectory predicts
a hit, and, if not, shoot the second round). This still means that
the new Taiwanese PAC-3s can defend the island against only about
one-fifth of a full Chinese attacking force at most.
War gamers also worry that Chinese sea-launched SRBMs attacking
from Taiwan's Pacific Ocean side would still need a two-to-one
PAC-3 defense ratio.
With China's SRBM deployments expanding at a predictable 100-200
missiles each year (as they have since 1999), Taiwan's new Patriot
ABM system is barely sufficient to defend one high-value Taiwan
target. The rest of Taiwan remains absolutely vulnerable to Chinese
missile attack. This is not even a minimal deterrent; it positively
invites China to contemplate threatening massive missile
bombardment of Taiwan as a cost-free tool of political
U.S.-China Partnership--at Taiwan's
Taiwan is slowly being decoupled from America's network of
security alignments in the western Pacific--partially because the
Bush Administration has come to see China more as a security
partner than as a competitor.
A case in point is the administration's promotion of the "North
East Asia Peace and Security Mechanism,"
a continuation and broadening of a U.S.-China partnership on the
Korean peninsula that has proven ineffective at enforcing the
denuclearization of North Korea.
Of course, China is also seen as a partner in managing the
global financial meltdown: There is no doubt the Bush
Administration has a pronounced interest in further investment of
Chinese massive foreign exchange reserves in the presently fragile
U.S. financial system. Subsequently, during a warm telephone call
to Chinese President Hu Jintao on September 22, President Bush
"briefed" Mr. Hu on the financial "turmoil" and assured him that
the "U.S. government took note of the seriousness of the issue."
The Chinese president praised "positive trends in China-U.S.
relations" and pledged "to continue our common efforts ...
particularly on the Taiwan issue, to promote cooperative
The implicit quid pro quooffer of China's financial
cooperation in return for U.S. cooperation on Taiwan was hard to
For an Administration that has insisted on "maintaining the
status quo" in the Taiwan Strait, it is astonishing that the Bush
national security apparatus has apparently determined that Taiwan
can maintain such military "status quo" without major upgrades in
While protesting the current offer, Beijing will take these
latest White House decisions on Taiwan arms as the baseline for
China's approach to the next Administration, demanding that the
capability offered by future arms sales not go beyond that
contained in the present package. Taiwan is the canary in the
mineshaft: As it slowly decouples from the U.S. security network in
the Pacific, we must expect that the rest of Asia will begin to
question the value of American security guarantees and reexamine
their own options.
The U.S. has a unique security relationship with Taiwan. Thirty
years ago, fearing that executive branch diplomacy with Communist
China would leverage a future president into abandoning Taiwan,
Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which provides for
arms sales to Taiwan, mandating that those decisions "shall" be
"based solely upon ... the needs of Taiwan." President Ronald
Reagan also pledged that the U.S. would not consult with China on
Congress assumed a major role in the shaping of America's
strategy in Asia by passing the TRA. It--and the next American
Administration--should strive to give full effect to those
guarantees. Anything less will constitute an abandonment of
American leadership that will not be lost on our friends and allies
in the region.
John J. Tkacik, Jr., is
Senior Research Fellow in China, Taiwan, and Mongolia Policy in the
Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.