Taiwan Buys U.S. Arms; U.S. Eyes China

By Boese, Wade | Arms Control Today, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

Taiwan Buys U.S. Arms; U.S. Eyes China


Boese, Wade, Arms Control Today


Taiwan's legislature recently approved buying a dozen anti-submarine planes, a modest portion of an original $18 billion U.S. arms package offered six years ago. The purchase comes amid persistent U.S. questions about China's military modernization and a new move to prevent American technology from aiding that drive.

Soon after taking office, President George W. Bush authorized selling Taiwan an array of weapon systems, including destroyers, diesel-electric attack submarines, and aircraft. (See ACX May 2001.) Later, the United States added short- and medium-range anti-missile systems. Taiwan agreed to acquire four Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, the final two of which were delivered last September. The rest of the package, however, became entangled in politics.

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian has urged making the deals, but his Democratic Progressive Party does not control the legislature, the Legislative Yuan. Led by the Nationalist Party, the majority coalition in the Legislative Yuan has blocked funding for the weapons, arguing that they are too expensive and too provocative to China, which opposes foreign arms sales to the island. Beijing asserts Taiwan is a renegade province that should be under the mainland's control and does not rule out using force to accomplish that objective.

On June 15, the Legislative Yuan approved buying 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft and upgrades to its current antimissile systems, the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-2. The parliament declined to seek newer PAC-3 batteries. Lawmakers also endorsed further study of the submarine option.

The Legislative Yuan's shift has been attributed to Nationalist Party maneuvering to increase the appeal of its candidate in the presidential election next March. Speculation also exists that the recent move was orchestrated to ease a separate requested purchase of 66 U.S. F-16 fighter jets. Washington has resisted moving ahead on the proposal, insisting that Taiwan first complete the 2001 offer.

U.S. officials have repeatedly rebuked Taiwan for not acting on the package. In a May 3 press conference, Stephen Young, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, noted that "Taiwan's friends" question whether Taipei is "serious about maintaining a credible defense." The institute serves as the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan since Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979.

Although Taiwan has essentially forgone major arms purchases the past several years, China has been working to improve its armed forces. The Pentagon noted May 25 in the latest edition of its annual report Military Power of the People's Republic of China, the "balance of forces [is] continuing to shift in the mainland's favor."

The report highlights China's 2006 receipt from Russia of the last of four Sovremenny-class destroyers and a final pair of eight Kilo-class diesel-electric attack submarines. Beijing also boosted its conventionally armed short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan by at least 100 to approximately 900.

On the strategic side, the Pentagon upgraded the status of China's road-mobile, solid-fuel DF-31 missile, which has an estimated range of some 7,000 kilometers, from developmental to "initial threat availability." A Pentagon official told reporters May 25 that the phrase meant that the missile "could be employed in actual military operations."

A longer-range variant, the DF-31A, which could target all of the United States, was still assessed as "developmental." The Pentagon suggested that missile might become operational as early as this year, similar to China's new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2.

These newer missiles have been in development for some time. The 2002 edition of the Pentagon report estimated that they would become available around mid- to late decade. All told, China's current force of ICBMs capable of reaching the continental United States remains at approximately 20 - no change since the Pentagon issued its first annual report in 2000. …

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