$12B in Taiwan Arms Deals Suspended for TalksBY wendell minnick
Published: 16 June 2008
TAIPEI - When the news broke that the U.S. government had suspended about $12 billion in congressional notifications for new arms for Taiwan, it rattled local military leaders and their supporters in Washington.
The action apparently violated the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which guarantees defensive arms sales to Taiwan, and contradicted the spirit of the 1982 Six Assurances, which assures Taiwan that Washington would not consult Beijing on arms sales.
But U.S. officials were acting on the request of the self-governing island's new Chinese Nationalist Party government, who feared that ongoing arms negotiations might jeopardize talks with Beijing, the first in more than a decade. Nevertheless, there is no indication when the suspension might be lifted; some predict it will last into the next U.S. presidential administration.
Sources in Taipei say the KMT government asked Washington to suspend arms sales for the duration of the talks, which began June 12 and whose most immediate concern is establishing direct cross-straits charter and airline flights.
"The [KMT] administration, given the unforeseen governing difficulties encountered at home so far, eagerly needs achievements on the weekend chartered flights and mainland tourists, both requiring Beijing's cooperation," said Lin Chong-Pin, president of the Taipei-based Foundation on International and Cross-Strait Studies. "Once the KMT makes the first scores, it can worry about the arms sales later, which do not seem urgent for the moment, at least."
But some fear the freeze could last until a new U.S. administration takes office in January.
"This could become a watershed event for future arms sales to Taiwan," said Mark Stokes, the Pentagon's country director for China and Taiwan from 1997-2004.
If the freeze is still on when Congress breaks in October, Stokes said, the notifications could be delayed until the next White House administration takes office.
"It's the law of physics. Once you lose that momentum, it's nearly impossible to get it back," he said.
The freeze affects submarine-launched Harpoon missiles, the design phase for eight diesel electric submarines, four Patriot PAC-3 missile batteries, 30 AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and 60 UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters. The freeze also includes the release of price and availability data for 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighters for an additional $5 million.
Much of this was originally promised by Bush in 2001, but blocked by political bickering in Taiwan until 2007.
Earlier this year, the KMT swept legislative and presidential elections, sweeping the pro-independence, prone-to-bungling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) from power.
"KMT's priorities, though not officially stated, appear to be first, economic growth, which is predicated on good relations with the mainland; second, political dignity; and third, military security," said Lin, who served as a former Taiwan deputy minister of defense. "The March 22 presidential election could be viewed as an unannounced referendum on the prioritization of long-term national goals. The order listed above was the result."
The KMT swiftly launched a dialogue with Beijing about direct flights. Weekend direct charter flights for tourists are expected to begin in July, and are likely to expand into daily regular flights within a year. By the end of 2009, Taiwan expects some 3,000 mainland visitors a day.
President Ma Ying-jeou has discussed economic and peace accords openly with China within five years and promised there would be "no arms race with China."
This would ease cross-strait tensions but could also lead to the end of U.S. military support for Taiwan. Beijing is likely to demand that Taipei tie itself closer to the mainland and end military-to-military relations with U.S. forces.Panda-Huggers?
Sources in Taipei and Washington say pro-China advocates in the U.S. government, dubbed the "Panda Huggers," have lobbied to disrupt U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
One U.S. government official said officials in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. State Department are conspiring to kill arms sales to Taiwan. Some want to open Chinese markets to U.S. firms, some want to save the Six Party Talks with North Korea by placating China, and some are laying foundations for private business deals after they leave government, the official said.
"When we allow our activities with China to influence our decision on arms sales to Taiwan, this is, in effect, a consultation. Beijing has learned that trick: Bait the Americans with some promises, then make the Americans wait for the delivery of those promises while the Americans hold up arms sales to Taiwan. Sounds like a winning game plan for China. Unfortunately, it is a lose-lose for the U.S. and Taiwan," the U.S. official said.
Ma plans to continue pursuing U.S. arms after the talks with Beijing; F-16s are on the top of the list. But the "new government needs time to review major policy guidelines based on Ma's 'Hard Rock' defense concept," said one source close to the Ma government.
"There exists an atmosphere of 'one customer at a time' in the government," he said. "They want to focus the energy on managing the resumption of regular cross-strait dialogue, as this is Ma's first priority and deliverable. Most of the top officials I've talked to insisted that they will thoroughly debrief the U.S. government regarding cross-strait progress, and remain committed to 3 percent GDP defense spending and continue defense procurements from the U.S."
However, there are fears Ma will not be able to please both pro-Taiwan elements in Washington and pro-unification forces in Beijing. The result could alienate both parties, leaving Taipei even more isolated. ■