Taiwan and Theater Missile Defense

Article excerpt

In responding to perceived new threats in the post-Cold War era, the US is now collaborating with Japan to deploy a theater missile defense (TMD) system in Northeast Asia. Confronting a mounting military threat from China, Taipei has seized on Washington's program as an opportunity to acquire anti-missile capability from the US. Interpreting US and Taiwanese actions as attempts to contain China and to undermine unification efforts with Taiwan, Beijing leaders strongly object both to the deployment of TMD in Northeast Asia and to the introduction of the related technology and equipment into Taipei. While Washington will continue its plan of deploying TMD, it is taking an ambiguous position regarding Taiwan's access to missile defense technology and equipment by deferring the sale of AEGIS destroyers to Taipei. The Clinton administration's ambiguous policy represents an unbalanced approach to cross-Strait relations and could inadvertently precipitate a dangerous crisis in the Taiwan Strait.

Key Words: China, Taiwan, Theater Missile Defense (TMD), Northeast Asia, Clinton administration foreign policy, Chinese-Taiwanese relations, Chinese military threat across the Taiwan Strait.

Introduction

The annual arms acquisition meeting between Taiwan and the US has recently concluded in Washington, D.C. While US arms sales to Taiwan have always been contentious,2 Taipei's 2000 acquisition request has attracted even more attention. Among the weapon systems being asked for this year, the request for four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with the highly advanced AEGIS battle management system has proven to be the most controversial. Because the AEGIS system is one of the crucial components of the US-planned theater missile defense (TMD) system in Northeast Asia, Beijing has repeatedly issued severe warnings against the sale, fearing that the transfer of the AEGIS system would bring Taiwan under the TMD umbrella. The US Congress, with its serious concern over China's missile threats to Taiwan, has undertaken legislative action demanding that the executive branch sell the AEGIS system to meet Taiwan's defense needs. After considerable deliberation, the Clinton administration has decided to sell a batch of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and the Pave Paws long-range radar.3 However, it has deferred a decision on Taipei's request for Burke-class destroyers, pending a comprehensive study of Taiwan's defense needs and its ability to absorb such equipment.'

The Clinton administration's ambiguous decision represents a mixture of good news and bad news for both Beijing and Taipei. While Washington's decision is certainly a disappointment to Taipei and a victory for Beijing, both sides know that the sale of TMD-related technology and equipment to Taiwan is not a dead issue. As a new US administration will take office next spring, the sale of AEGIS destroyers to the island country will most likely be revived considering the strong support that Taipei has enjoyed in Congress. Thus, Taiwan's quest for anti-missile technology and equipment will remain a major political issue for both Taipei and Washington and a serious challenge to US-Taiwan-China relations.

This study attempts to assess the strategic considerations of Beijing, Taipei and Washington regarding the sale of TMD-related technology and equipment to Taiwan. It starts with an, examination of the proposed US-planned TMD program in Northeast Asia, followed by an analysis of the concerns about the program held by

Taiwan and Theater Missile Defense

Taipei and Beijing. It then discusses US strategic considerations regarding Taiwan's possible access to TMD-related technology and equipment. The conclusion will comment on Washington's deliberately ambiguous decision to defer the sale of AEGIS destroyers to Taipei and the policy implications for China-Taiwan-US relations.

TMD and US Ballistic Missile Defense Program

The US ballistic missile defense (BMD) program underwent a fundamental change in 1989 when the Bush administration initiated a review of the program as part of a broader examination of US strategic requirements for an emerging "new world order. …