Sunday, October 4, 2009

Could U.S. End Arms Sales to Taiwan?

Defense News


Could U.S. End Arms Sales to Taiwan?


TAIPEI — U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are in the deep freeze, according to Adm. Timothy Keating, who leads U.S. Pacific Command.

“There have been no significant arms sales from the United States to Taiwan in relatively recent times. It’s administration policy,” Keating told a Heritage Foundation forum July 16 in Washington.

That puts a new face on a building nightmare for Taiwanese officials, who were just beginning to fear that U.S. arms sales to the island may have come to an end.

Earlier this year, Taipei asked Washington to stop notifying Congress about pending arms sales to the self-governing island until talks with Beijing ended June 14.

To all appearances, U.S. officials fulfilled the request, suspending notifications for weapons worth $11 billion: 30 AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters, 60 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and six Patriot PAC-3 air-defense missile batteries. U.S. officials have also put on hold a feasibility study for a design for eight diesel electric submarines.

And for more than a year, Washington has denied Taiwan’s letter of request for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters worth $5.5 billion.

That might have been a clue.

Keating’s comments confirmed that U.S. sales have indeed been on hold — beginning a good deal earlier than the Taiwanese request. The last major sale was a $732 million deal for four Kidd-class destroyers in 2001, the same year Bush pledged to sell Taiwan more advanced arms worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But Taipei’s efforts to accept the offer were blocked for years in the legislature.

In his remarks, Keating said U.S. policy-makers had determined no current need for the arms sales.

“We want to do nothing to destabilize the straits. We are committed to the defense of Taiwan. And the folks who make these decisions, I believe, have reconciled Taiwan’s current military posture, China’s current military posture and strategy,” he said. “That indicates there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this moment, arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we’re talking about.”

Keating cited the recent election, which brought to power a president, Ma Ying-jeou, who had vowed to warm relations with the mainland.

“It is our view that the situation is significantly more stable, that tensions have been palpably decreased in the strait,” Keating said. “The people of Taiwan have spoken, and the new president of Taiwan [Ma], they are all embracing a philosophy that is — in my words, not theirs — demonstrative of a desire to be more cooperative, less confrontational with the People’s Republic of China.”

But the admiral also warned China that the United States would beat off any military attempt to take Taiwan.

“China’s kinetic military undertaking against Taiwan — or anybody else, but in the specific case of China-Taiwan — I want them to know they’re going to lose — China. So don’t bother ... we hope to be a very powerful deterrent,” he said.

Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies here, said, “Adm. Keating has cleared up the U.S. position over the recent arms sales storm towards Taiwan, and at the same time reassured Taiwan that the U.S. is still strongly committing its support for Taiwan’s defense and security.”

But a former Taiwan deputy minister of defense speculated there were other reasons for Washington’s change of heart.

“What Keating didn’t say, and what Washington cannot say, is that the U.S. does not want to sell arms to Taiwan so that they end up in the future PLA [People’s Liberation Army] arsenal,” Lin Chong-Pin said.

One Washington analyst saw a waning of support. “President Ma has literally begged the Bush administration to approve a new tranche of arms transfers, but to his chagrin, the Bush White House has been silent,” said John Tkacik of the Heritage Foundation. “However, what was silence now seems to be a formal divorce.”

Few in the U.S. administration want a diplomatic confrontation with China on Taiwan just now. The U.S. State Department wants China’s continued help in disarmament talks with North Korea, and potentially, with Iran. Beijing and Taipei are wrapping up their first formal negotiations in more than a decade. Bush is slated to travel to the Beijing Olympics in August. Violence in Afghanistan is worsening. The U.S. economy is softening.

The U.S. has no excuses now that Ma has made public statements to release arms, said Alexander Huang, a senior associate with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies who lives in Taipei.

“The reality is that President Ma has not retracted his pledge of appropriating 3 percent of the GDP for defense spending ... and has repeatedly assured continued procurements of necessary arms from the U.S. [given] recent warming trends across the Taiwan Strait,” Huang said.

There is also the matter of law. Taiwan’s defense needs are protected by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which commits the United States to providing the means for Taiwan to defend itself.

“A freeze on arms sales would violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the Taiwan Relations Act,” said Mark Stokes, former Pentagon country director for China/Taiwan from 1997-2004, now with Project 2049.

If the White House does not formally notify Congress before lawmakers adjourn on Sept. 26, the decision will fall to the next U.S. president. Taiwan supporters fear he will shift policy support towards China. And if the United States does not sell arms to Taiwan, it is unclear who would.

After the Lafayette frigate kickback scandal in the 1990s, France signed an agreement with China not to sell weapons to Taiwan. Israel has sold Taipei nothing of significance since the 1980s.

That could leave Taiwan with nowhere to turn for advanced arms except its own limited indigenous capabilities. They have built ships and fighters in the past, but have whittled these down to almost no sustained capability.

Unlike South Korea and Japan, who insist on co build or co-assembly of U.S. arms sold to them, the Taiwanese have been buying entire platforms and equipment with no options.