Why Taiwan Arms Deal Is a Diplomatic Slam Dunk for Bush

  • Share
  • Read Later

Taiwan will have to make do with four Kidd-class destroyers

By playing it smart on Taiwan's request for the state-of-the-art Aegis anti-missile system, President George W. Bush has managed to sell the island a robust package of weapons without pushing Beijing over the edge. China reacted with predictable anger to Monday's reports that the President had OK'd a substantial weapons package to Taiwan, even though he'd nixed, for now, their request for the Aegis. But then China reacts angrily when the U.S. considers issuing a tourist visa to a former Taiwanese president; still, the fact remains that Beijing had drawn a line in the sand over the Aegis system, and Washington stopped short of crossing that line even as it moves to sell Taiwan four guided-missile destroyers, eight submarines, aircraft, missiles and other sophisticated weapons.

There had been fears during the Hainan spy-plane standoff that China's detention of a U.S. crew and aircraft would push the administration to stick it to Beijing by approving the Aegis sale — and 102 members of Congress had sent the administration an open letter urging that the sale proceed — but word from the White House had always been that Bush would not allow the incident to decide other key issues in relations with Beijing. The decision, administration sources indicated, would be based solely on Taiwan's defensive needs. From that point of view, a number of military experts had concluded that the island's military did not need the Aegis at this point, nor would it necessarily be able to absorb the sophisticated system. Even if the sale had been OK'd, the construction of the Aegis-equipped Arleigh Burke-class destroyers would take another eight years. So why rush? Instead, by deferring the sale for "a couple of years" and tying it to Beijing's deployment of medium-range missiles across the Taiwan Strait, Bush has retained the leverage afforded by the Aegis option.

While Beijing objects to any U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, it had made a diplomatic priority out of stopping the Aegis sale, even sending Vice Premier Qian Qichen to Washington to press the issue with President Bush. Approving the sale might have put President Jiang Zemin and other reformers who seek good relations with the West in an untenable position in their domestic power struggle against hard-liners who believe confrontation is inevitable, even possibly forcing them to find some way of retaliating that could further escalate China-U.S. tension. Having made Aegis the hot-button issue — partly out of a belief that it would enable Washington to include Taiwan under a missile shield — Beijing is likely to keep a lid on its unhappiness of the rest of the arms package. And if the Bush administration manages to re-equip the Taiwanese navy without provoking a showdown with Beijing, that's got to rank as a diplomatic slam dunk.