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Taiwan Buys U.S. Arms; U.S. Eyes China
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Wade Boese

Taiwan’s legislature recently approved buying a dozen anti-submarine planes, a modest portion of an original $18 billion U.S. arms package offered six years ago. The purchase comes amid persistent U.S. questions about China’s military modernization and a new move to prevent American technology from aiding that drive.

Soon after taking office, President George W. Bush authorized selling Taiwan an array of weapon systems, including destroyers, diesel-electric attack submarines, and aircraft. (See ACT, May 2001.) Later, the United States added short- and medium-range anti-missile systems. Taiwan agreed to acquire four Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, the final two of which were delivered last September. The rest of the package, however, became entangled in politics.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has urged making the deals, but his Democratic Progressive Party does not control the legislature, the Legislative Yuan. Led by the Nationalist Party, the majority coalition in the Legislative Yuan has blocked funding for the weapons, arguing that they are too expensive and too provocative to China, which opposes foreign arms sales to the island. Beijing asserts Taiwan is a renegade province that should be under the mainland’s control and does not rule out using force to accomplish that objective.

On June 15, the Legislative Yuan approved buying 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft and upgrades to its current anti-missile systems, the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-2. The parliament declined to seek newer PAC-3 batteries. Lawmakers also endorsed further study of the submarine option.

The Legislative Yuan’s shift has been attributed to Nationalist Party maneuvering to increase the appeal of its candidate in the presidential election next March. Speculation also exists that the recent move was orchestrated to ease a separate requested purchase of 66 U.S. F-16 fighter jets. Washington has resisted moving ahead on the proposal, insisting that Taiwan first complete the 2001 offer.

U.S. officials have repeatedly rebuked Taiwan for not acting on the package. In a May 3 press conference, Stephen Young, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, noted that “Taiwan’s friends” question whether Taipei is “serious about maintaining a credible defense.” The institute serves as the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979.

Although Taiwan has essentially forgone major arms purchases the past several years, China has been working to improve its armed forces. The Pentagon noted May 25 in the latest edition of its annual report Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, the “balance of forces [is] continuing to shift in the mainland’s favor.”

The report highlights China’s 2006 receipt from Russia of the last of four Sovremenny-class destroyers and a final pair of eight Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines. Beijing also boosted its conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan by at least 100 to approximately 900.

On the strategic side, the Pentagon upgraded the status of China’s road-mobile, solid-fuel DF-31 missile, which has an estimated range of some 7,000 kilometers, from developmental to “initial threat availability.” A Pentagon official told reporters May 25 that the phrase meant that the missile “could be employed in actual military operations.”

A longer-range variant, the DF-31A, which could target all of the United States, was still assessed as “developmental.” The Pentagon suggested that missile might become operational as early as this year, similar to China’s new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2.

These newer missiles have been in development for some time. The 2002 edition of the Pentagon report estimated that they would become available around mid- to late decade. All told, China’s current force of ICBMs capable of reaching the continental United States remains at approximately 20—no change since the Pentagon issued its first annual report in 2000.

Chinese leaders, according to the report, see space and counter-space capabilities as signs of prestige and power similar to nuclear weapons. China’s Jan. 11 destruction of an aging satellite in orbit (see ACT, March 2007 ) revealed only one element of what the Pentagon describes as a “multi-dimensional program” to “deny others access to outer space.”

China is funding its arms purchases, missile developments, and space capabilities with a growing military budget. In March, Beijing announced a nearly 18 percent spending increase from last year, to approximately $45 billion. The Pentagon, which in February asked Congress for $623 billion for one year, says China’s actual military budget could be as high as $125 billion.

China rails at such allegations. On May 28, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu blasted the Pentagon report as spreading the “myth of the China threat by exaggerating China’s military strength and expenses out of ulterior motives.” Qin Gang, another ministry spokesperson, defended China’s military modernization June 21 as “moderate and reasonable.”

Although the annual Pentagon report focuses on China’s capabilities, Washington says what it is really interested in and unclear about is Chinese intentions. “We wish that there were greater transparency, that [the Chinese] would talk more about what their intentions are [and] what their strategies are,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said May 24.

Possible conflicts with Taiwan are the near-term military focus of China, the report concludes. Yet, it also assesses that China is creating a base for pursuing “broader regional and global objectives.”

China’s growing capabilities has caught the attention of some U.S. lawmakers. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, warned at a June 13 panel hearing that China has “stepped into the superpower shoes that had been vacated by the Soviet Union with respect to military power.” But Undersecretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Richard Lawless told the panel that Beijing “is not necessarily interested in the ability to stand toe-to-toe and go into a major conflict with the United States.”

Greater openness on China’s part could diminish the possibility of future conflict, U.S. officials say. Lawless noted that, without Chinese transparency, the United States is “put in the position of having to assume the most dangerous intent a capability offers.”

U.S. officials contend China is opening up slightly but not enough, particularly in the nuclear realm. Beijing has begged off recent U.S. invitations to engage in a nuclear policy dialogue, but Gates and other U.S. officials are strongly promoting the offer. “That kind of dialogue, whether or not it involves specific proposals for arms control or anything else, I think, is immensely valuable,” Gates said June 2.

The two governments are expected to begin exploring establishment of a military hotline this September. Still, Lawless cautioned that “there’s a lot left to finalize.”

Although seeking to improve relations with China, the United States is wary of China’s military rise. In its 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon observed that China “has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that could over time offset traditional U.S. military advantages.”

Aiming to prevent U.S. companies from abetting such developments, the Department of Commerce June 15 announced new rules on exporting dual-use goods to China. Dual-use items have civilian and military applications.

The recent measures expand the list of items that require U.S. companies to obtain a license when shipping to known military end uses in China. These 20 product categories include some high-performance computers, lasers, aircraft, aero-gas turbine engines, and machine tools.

At the same time, the Commerce Department is seeking to reward Chinese entities with records of not re-exporting or diverting imports to unauthorized purposes. Such importers will be eligible to become “validated end users” that will be exempted from getting licenses for some dual-use goods. In addition, the threshold for obtaining licenses for some dual-use items that are not destined for military uses will be increased from $5,000 to $50,000.

In a June 15 press statement, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez described the new rules as a “common-sense approach” that will facilitate U.S. exports to “pre-screened civilian customers” while denying goods that “would contribute to China’s military.”