Taiwan's Turn

Article excerpt


For the last 4 1/2 years, the Bush administration has continually begged Taiwan to purchase a special $18 billion package of weapons designed to help defend against the threat from China. Due mostly to relentless obstructionism on the part of the opposition pan-Blue coalition, Taiwan has failed to pass this special budget. If the United States fails to seriously pressure Taiwan - in the form of diplomatic "sticks" - Taiwan will continue to balk, emboldening China and endangering the security of both Taiwan and the United States.

Taiwan faces arguably the most precarious security environment in the world. It sits roughly 100 miles away from the behemoth People's Republic of China, which is aiming a considerable campaign of military modernization directly at tiny Taiwan. In the face of this dire threat, Taiwan has displayed a stunning neglect of its own defense, and not just in terms of its refusal to pass the special budget. Over the last five years, Taiwan's overall defense spending has dropped roughly 25 percent, to an anemic 2.4 percent of gross domestic product.

The reason it has the luxury to do so, according to Taiwan expert James Mulvenon, is Taiwan's belief in a "blank check of military support from the United States."

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has not convinced Taiwan it does not have a blank check from the United States. By refusing to put adequate force behind the negotiations over the special budget, the administration has conveyed it is prepared to endure indefinite Taiwanese procrastination. Without more serious U.S. pressure, Taiwan's government may continue to de-emphasizing defense spending, even as it greatly increases its social spending.

The administration seems to be turning up the heat. Edward Ross, a senior Pentagon official, gave Taiwan a stern warning last week. Mr. Ross told Taiwanese defense officials at a meeting in San Diego that, "We cannot help defend you if you cannot defend yourself." While that was a helpful measure, there are a number of additional tactics the administration could use if Taiwan continues to refuse the special budget.

For example, in April 2001 President Bush promised to do "whatever it takes to help Taiwan defend itself." What the Taiwanese seem to have heard was "whatever it takes to defend Taiwan." The president should clarify what his remarks meant in the context of the stalled special budget.

The ultimate danger is that Taiwan's military may become increasingly irrelevant. …