Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Legislative Inaction Saps Taiwan’s Military



Legislative Inaction Saps Taiwan’s Military


Taiwan’s defense budget deadlock, largely the product of a bitter battle between pro-China and pro-independence lawmakers, is eroding Washington’s ties with the self-governing island.

U.S. defense sources say the latest blow came on Oct. 24, when the Taiwanese legislature failed yet again to pass even a slimmed-down, $186 million defense acquisition bill. It was the 61st time the budget had been blocked since its introduction in 2004.

The money would have provided initial funding for P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, upgrades to Patriot Advanced Capability-2 anti-missile missiles and some diesel submarine design — just a fraction of the $17 billion arms package offered in 2001 by U.S. President George W. Bush.

Adding a degree of bewilderment to U.S. officials’ disappointment, one legislator popped a canister of noxious gas during the debate, forcing his colleagues to flee in tears. The lawmaker, Li Ao, later told reporters he was trying to halt further budget talks.

U.S. officials have few reliable ways to interpret such high jinks — but such antics do little to ease the growing perception in Washington that Taiwan’s appetite for standing up to China may be waning.

“Can you believe Li Ao and the tear gas incident? What a knucklehead! Doesn’t he realize what kind of impact that stuff has on the legislature’s already low level of credibility here in Washington? I guess they really just don’t care!” said one U.S. government official.

On Oct. 26, Stephen Young, de facto U.S. ambassador to Taiwan, gave an unprecedented press conference.

“Taiwan needs to pass the robust defense budget in this fall’s legislative session. The United States is watching closely and will judge those who take responsible position as well as those who play politics on this critical issue,” he said.

Some legislators reacted angrily to the remark, suggesting that Washington was trying to bully Taiwan into going forward with the controversial budget.

In the half-decade since Bush offered to sell eight subs, 12 P-3s and several PAC-3 batteries, “there have been increasing concern about Taiwan’s lack of consensus over its own self-defense and the widening gap between the different perceptions of China’s military threat in the two capitals,” said Shirley Kan, a China-Taiwan defense expert at the Congressional Research Service, Washington.

“Many in Taiwan now seem to care more about cross-strait ties than the relationship with American friends.”

Delays have caused headaches for Pentagon and Ministry of Defense officials alike.

“What people don’t realize is that if the Legislative Yuan funded them next month, the first P-3C wouldn’t arrive in Taiwan until November 2011, the first PAC-3 system until November 2013, and the first sub until 2015,” said a U.S. defense contractor based in Taiwan.

But most sources said no budget will be approved unless the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, retakes the presidential office in 2008.

Few believe Washington will be in the mood to continue dealing with Taipei. “For years, policy-makers in the Bush administration and Congress have appealed with goodwill to Taiwan’s political figures and have received their domestic partisan bickering instead of honest, credible answers about defense priorities, policies, and perceptions of common or conflicting interests,” Kan said.

Officials at the Taiwan Ministry of Defense did not even send lawmakers their first “special budget” proposal to buy the U.S. arms until 2004. The measure has generally been supported by the ruling party, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, also called the Pan-Green party. But efforts to pass the budget have been frustrated by so-called Pan-Blue legislators: members of the KMT and the People’s First Party (PFP) who seek closer ties with Beijing.

The Pan-Blues’ efforts to stymie the defense bill are seen as an attempt to embarrass President Chen Shui-bian, encumber the executive branch and erode U.S. confidence in his administration.

“The PFP wants Taiwan to be part of China and the KMT wants closer relations with China, but with a greater degree of autonomy than the PFP would require,” said a U.S. defense source in Taipei. “In both cases, I think they would be looking to strengthen Taiwan-China relations and de-emphasize Taiwan-U.S. relations.”

Some see a blatant effort by China to influence island politics.

“Taiwan has a clear and defensible military requirement for all of these systems. The only reason they’ve been questioned, criticized and boycotted so far is politics, plus unspeakable individual agendas” by pro-China legislators, said Fu S. Mei, director of the Taiwan Security Analysis Center and editor of the Taiwan Defense Review.

One senior Taiwan defense official said China is taking advantage of Taiwan’s “infant democracy.”

“Too many pro-China legislators [in Taiwan] have investments in China, even own factories. China is having a good time seeing its agents in Taiwan work so well.”

One former official of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. Embassy in Taipei, said, “Chinese medals will be awarded to some legislative members for blocking this budget.”

But the former official conceded that the movement is widespread.

“Most Taiwan businessmen and their families have already decided and now have purchased homes in Shanghai and other locations in China. It’s not easy being Green” — in the Democratic Progressive Party, the former American Institute in Taiwan official said.

“China dominates Asia and will continue doing so for the foreseeable future. It is in Taiwan’s best interest to reach some type of accommodation with Beijing. That doesn’t mean giving up everything, but will mean giving up something. There should be negotiations, and that process could last a long time before a final decision is made.”

Even a Kuomintang victory may not lead to reunifying with China.

“A KMT government will definitely be more conciliatory with the PRC [People’s Republic of China], but I’m not sure how far KMT would try to go,” Mei said. “The ‘no independence/no use of force’ concept of Taipei Mayor Ma, a leading KMT candidate for president in 2008, is talking about may sound attractive, but could be much more difficult to actually reach an agreement that is acceptable to both Beijing and Taipei.”

Some say the U.S. arms offer has exacerbated some factions’ shift toward Beijing.

“The Bush administration decision to offer Taiwan submarines, P-3s and Patriots was done with the best of intentions, but at the end of the day it has become an ongoing nightmare for the military, degrading military morale and giving China the opportunity to meddle in Taiwan politics and military affairs,” said one U.S. defense source in Taipei.

He said U.S. officials should withdraw the arms offer until the political situation calms down, giving Chen’s administration a chance to recover before the 2008 election, and give the pro-China elements less ammunition.