Taiwan Leader Pushes US Arms Deal ; President Chen This Week Renewed a Request to Approve a Multibillion- Dollar Arms Purchase

Article excerpt

In a bid to rally Taiwan's flagging independence forces, President Chen Shui-bian's New Year's resolution seems to be provoking mainland China with a push announced this week to buy US arms, including eight submarines and a dozen sub-hunting aircraft.

For five years, as China has created a high-tech attack force designed to overwhelm Taiwan, the island's politicians have batted around a US-approved package of sophisticated military equipment worth between $10 and $19 billion.

Yet little has actually been procured. The arms deal, dreamed of by Taiwanese generals, has been a political tar-baby that has never passed the legislature. Taiwan's inability to move on the arms deal has prompted criticism in Washington, even among Taiwan's devout friends, who complain the island appears unwilling to defend itself and is banking instead on US military power.

At the same time, an increasing number of US defense experts, including Pacific commander Adm. William Fallon, are asking whether a package of sophisticated arms is what best serves the tiny island of 23 million. In fact, new Chinese military advances may mean it is more practical and effective for Taiwan, say, to shore up basic defenses - use lots of cement and make better bunkers - rather than only buy fancy weapons.

Instead of spending huge sums on a diesel-electric sub that would take at least a decade to deploy, for example, they point to other measures that could be taken, including hardening airfields, buying antiaircraft missiles, and protecting electronic systems needed in a fight. Instead of procuring expensive and vulnerable warships, Taiwan could buy mines that would deny the Chinese Army an easy landing on island beaches.

Such steps that force China to reconsider how quickly it can seize the island, in an attack, some experts argue.

"[Taiwan] may buy a huge load of stuff that may not be operational until it is too late," says James Mulvenon, of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis in Washington, D.C. "Taiwan needs to spend on things that will cause China to recalculate whether they can achieve a first-strike success."

"It may be politically satisfying to purchase big ticket glamour items. But it may not be practical," says Denny Roy of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies. "If you buy expensive ships, but don't have quick runway repair, you may regret it. Is it wise to procure a big bucket of golden eggs that you can't defend? Mines may not be sexy, but they may be an efficient use of funds."

In the past year, mainland China has made unprecedented inroads into Taiwan's political culture, with emotional spring visits by Taiwanese opposition leaders Lien Chan and James Soong to Beijing, and new talk of tourism, trade, shared ethnicity, and peace across the strait. …