U.S. Freezes $12B in Arms Sales to Taiwan
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI - As China and Taiwan prepare for their first official talks in more than a decade, sources in both Taipei and Washington say the U.S. State Department has decided to freeze all congressional notifications for $12 billion worth of arms sales to Taiwan.
Sources are mixed on whether the freeze will extend through the remainder of the Bush administration or only until after the August Beijing Olympics. Fears in Taipei are the freeze could become permanent with a new U.S. president in January.
The freeze is part of an effort not to derail Beijing-Taipei negotiations, scheduled to begin June 11, or disturb plans by U.S. President George W. Bush to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
The freeze covers about $12 billion worth of weapon sales now being processed under the Pentagon's Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program and items still awaiting approval, including 30 Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow attack helicopters, 60 Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, eight diesel electric submarines, four Raytheon Patriot PAC-3 air defense missile batteries and 66 Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters. The freeze does not include 12 Lockheed Martin P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, which have already been approved.
Sources are saying the State Department, along with heavy lobbying by officials assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, has been pushing hard to freeze arms sales to Taiwan to placate China. The freeze comes at a bad time for the U.S. defense industry, with expected cuts in defense spending and recent problems in the U.S. economy.
Beijing also has been successful at curtailing U.S. defense company activities in Taiwan. Boeing closed its Taipei office two years ago after threats that Beijing would curtail future sales of commercial aircraft.
In the first quarter of this year, the Taiwan electorate gave the Kuomintang (KMT) a sweeping majority in the legislature and elected its first KMT president, Ma Ying-jeou, in eight years. The election demonstrated public dissatisfaction with the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The return of the KMT gave Beijing the green light to go forward with formal talks on establishing direct flights, economic accords and a potential peace accord.
The discussions between the once stalwart enemies are being compared with the Egyptian-Israeli peace talks of the 1970s. However, the rapid negotiations have given pause in the U.S. government with calls for a wait-and-see approach.
"Supposedly, according to scuttlebutt here, [a U.S. State Department official] asked Ma at the inauguration if he was still interested in F-16s, subs, etc., and Ma insisted that he was, but it was not the right time to ask for them with all the cross-Strait talks going on," said John Tkacik, senior fellow, Heritage Foundation, and a former U.S. State Department official with service in China.
A source close to Ma stated his administration will continue to push for the release of F-16s, arguing Taiwan must be able to negotiate with China from a position of strength.
"Otherwise, the Chinese will only dictate terms to Taiwan," he said.
"Here, the word is the White House won't move forward unless Ma asks, and Ma isn't asking," Tkacik said. "KMT people blame the delay on the U.S., and the U.S. smiles its Cheshire-Cat smile and says, 'Taiwan hasn't asked.' It seems there's a decision in Washington to shove Taipei into Beijing's warm embrace, and Taipei's leadership is too divided on the issue to make a decision."
The U.S. de facto embassy in Taipei, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), has consistently turned down a letter of request [LOR] for price and availability data for 66 F-16s for almost two years.
The argument given at AIT is the U.S. government would be forced to make a policy decision on rejecting the F-16s, and therefore the LOR is quietly discouraged.
Sources in Taipei have indicated a formal rejection of F-16s would result in a permanent decision, and the best timing for accepting an F-16 LOR would be after the Olympics and before the next U.S. administration is sworn into office in 2009.
However, the blanket freeze, which includes submarines and PAC-3s already promised by the Bush administration in 2001, is unprecedented in Taiwan-U.S. relations. Indications are the Bush administration has decided to pass the decision on to the next president.
Mark Stokes, former country director for China and Taiwan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 1997-2004, and described by many in the defense community as the "staff coordinator" of the 2001 decision to offer Taiwan submarines, PAC-3s and P-3 Orions by the Bush administration, said the freeze violates the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
"I would argue that the holding of these notifications, and refusal to accept and act upon the LOR for price and availability constitutes a freeze on arms sales to Taiwan. Nothing more and nothing less," he said. "This assertion is based upon more than a decade of direct and intimate involvement in the process. It also violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the Taiwan Relations Act, a legal document that seems to be getting less and less attention these days."
Stokes, who is now the executive director of the Project 2049 Institute, said the "alleged rationale" in Washington is "ostensibly to provide the new democratically elected administration under President Ma Ying-jeou an opportunity to review its own requirements and priorities."
Stokes argues a policy review, including defense security policy in general, is expected. However, he said the decision to move forward on arms sales should be left to the Taiwanese, and not determined by coercion from Beijing and efforts by Beijing-friendly elements in the U.S. State Department.
Ma has been going forward quickly in negotiations with Beijing on direct flights, and many believe Beijing-Taipei relations will grow quickly with economic and peace accords slated within the next five-to-10 years, respectively.
These efforts, argue some Taiwan watchers, increase the chances Taiwan will become part of China's overall security bubble, allowing the Chinese and Taiwanese militaries to work together on regional security goals within the next 10 to 20 years.
Worst-case scenarios include basing Chinese forces in Taiwan, including air and naval facilities that would extend China's reach into the Pacific, and turn the Taiwan Strait into a potential choke point for oil shipments from the Middle East to Japan and South Korea.
There are also fears that new F-16s, equipped with the sophisticated new APG-80 advanced electronically scanned radar system, could end up in the hands of China via an orchestrated defection or simply given access to the platform in Taiwan.
The real question for many cross-Strait watchers is: How far will the relationship go in the next few years? Will China successfully integrate Taiwan economically, diplomatically and militarily? Or will Taiwan manage to maintain a semblance of autonomy?