Taiwan's Arms Wish List Creates Dilemma for U.S.

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In the end, the Taiwan arms dilemma may be a question of flags — more precisely, of which flag is flown by the U.S.-made warships that might be deployed in the Taiwan Strait if Beijing attacks Taiwan. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Taiwan's attempts to buy four U.S.-made destroyers equipped with the advanced Aegis guided missile system has created an acute political dilemma for the Clinton administration, in light of Chinese warnings that such a sale would dangerously escalate tensions with both the U.S. and Taiwan. The President's dilemma, of course, is the one inherited by every tenant of the Oval Office since Nixon — how to manage a "One China" policy that recognizes Beijing as the government of a single Chinese sovereign entity that includes Taiwan, while at the same time committing Washington to defend Taiwan against any aggression by that same government. But with tensions raised by election-season rhetoric both in Taiwan and the U.S., Taipei's military shopping list leaves Washington facing the unhappy choice of provoking a backlash either from Beijing or from Taiwan's vocal supporters on Capitol Hill.

Although the State Department and National Security Council are reportedly against making a sale that would further complicate Washington's most troubled relationship, the Times reports that a number of top Pentagon officials favor beefing up Taiwan's defenses. The military logic is plain to see: The current policy requires that U.S. forces be rapidly deployed to defend Taiwan from any threat, as occurred in 1996 when President Clinton ordered a U.S. Navy battle group into the Taiwan Strait after China had fired ballistic missiles toward the island. Although that deployment was enough to force Beijing to back away from the threat of force, there might be legitimate concerns in military circles over whether today's risk-averse U.S. leadership in both the White House and Congress would muster the political will to become embroiled in what its own policy would define as a Chinese civil war. By that logic, even if Taiwan doesn't get the weapons it covets, the administration may be inclined to bolster the island's capacity for self-defense — and soothe China's anger with an economic carrot or two.