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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Taiwan's Chen Proposes Arms Control With China, But Seeks U.S. Arms

Wade Boese

While lobbying for legislative approval of a huge U.S. arms package offer, Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian suggested Oct. 10 that Taiwan and China give arms control a thought. Beijing, which is pressing Europe to drop a long-standing Chinese arms embargo, has not responded.

Delivering a speech celebrating Taiwan’s National Day, Chen declared that China and Taiwan “should seriously consider the issue of arms control and take concrete actions to reduce tension and military threats across the Taiwan Strait.” He further said both capitals should review their “armament policies” and explore a code of conduct for the strait to help keep the peace.

The same day, Chen issued a public message that Taiwan would “continue to strengthen the military and enhance our defense capabilities.” He also accused Taiwan’s lawmakers, who face parliamentary elections Dec. 11, of letting politics interfere with the island’s security by squabbling over, thereby postponing, a vote on roughly $18 billion in new arms procurement. “A decision should not be considered correct one day but incorrect the next merely for electoral or political considerations,” the president stated.

In April 2001, President George W. Bush offered to sell Taiwan four Kidd-class guided missile destroyers, eight diesel-powered submarines (even though the United States has not built a conventional submarine since 1959), and 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft. (See ACT, May 2001.) Since then, the administration also has prodded Taiwan to acquire Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missile interceptors to protect itself against China’s ever-growing number of short-range ballistic missiles aimed across the 160-kilometer-wide strait. The Pentagon estimated this summer that 500 Chinese missiles sit opposite Taiwan.

The high cost of the U.S. arms, differences over the proper mix of weapons to buy, problems finding an appropriate submarine design and builder, and concerns about upsetting China have all combined to delay a final decision by Taipei. After narrowly winning re-election as president in March, Chen revived the push for the arms package.

China, which views Taiwan as a renegade province that should be under the mainland’s control, has vehemently objected to the pending U.S. deal. Although generally opposed to any foreign arms sales to Taiwan, Beijing is particularly agitated about the prospect of Taiwan importing advanced weapons with Chen at the helm because he has been a long-time proponent of Taiwanese independence.

Making matters worse from Beijing’s perspective is the perceived meddling of some U.S. officials, such as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Richard Lawless, exhorting Taiwan to stop its dallying and buy U.S. arms. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Kong Quan said Oct. 11 that such comments cause China “strong indignation.”

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan rankle Beijing so much that over the past two years it has reportedly floated a vague tradeoff involving a freeze or withdrawal of Chinese missile deployments targeting Taiwan for Washington turning off its arms pipeline to Taipei. Neither Taiwan nor the United States showed interest.

Washington committed itself in 1979 to provide Taiwan with enough arms to sustain a “sufficient self-defense capability.” More than $19 billion in U.S. arms have been delivered since then. China, which has received 152 combat aircraft and six warships from Russia over the past dozen years, ranks as the top arms buyer in the developing world since 2000 with more than $9.3 billion in new weapons deals, according to an August arms sales report by the Congressional Research Service. (See ACT, October 2004.)

Without remarking on Chen’s arms control proposal, Beijing blasted other aspects of his speech. Zhang Mingqing, a spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, denounced Oct. 13 Chen’s remarks as a “grave provocation to the peace and stability” of the region and as promoting separatism. Beijing has repeatedly warned it might use force against Taiwan if the island ever asserted its independence.

Meanwhile, China is working hard to persuade the European Union to lift its arms embargo imposed after Beijing’s brutal 1989 crackdown on unarmed protestors in Tiananmen Square. (See ACT, September 2004.) Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhang Qiyue told reporters Oct. 12 that China’s human rights record had improved remarkably over the past several years, obviating that justification for retaining the embargo. “Lifting the weapons embargo is in line with the common interests of China and Europe,” Zhang concluded.

The United States, which also maintains an arms embargo on China, is urging the EU to turn a deaf ear to Beijing’s plea.