It used to be an annual ritual: Taiwan's military attachés trekked to Washington each spring with a huge weapons wish list. Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of China, predictably erupted in fury. The Pentagon would then scale back the size of the arms deal. But times have changed. Today, U.S. military officials regularly fly to Taipei to hawk sophisticated weapons -- as much as Taiwan can buy. "At this point there are no real restrictions on what Taiwan can and cannot have," says John J. Tkacik Jr., a China expert at the Heritage Foundation.
Why the sales push? Pentagon officials are deeply worried that China's economic growth spurt has fueled an arms buildup that has tipped the military balance across the Taiwan Strait. For years Taiwan's air power surpassed China's. Now the Pentagon worries that China is catching up, thanks to its purchase of fighters, submarines, and missiles, mostly from Russia. Some 550 Chinese missiles are aimed at Taiwan. The Pentagon's fears are exacerbated by exercises such as Beijing's mock invasion of Taiwan staged in July.
Washington wants Taipei to regain its edge. The Pentagon figures China would be less likely to attack a better-armed Taiwan, and Taipei would have less need for U.S. aid in the event of combat. Now Taiwan's legislature is considering a bill authorizing the purchase of $1.8 billion in weapons annually over 10 years -- almost double the size of recent purchases. The deal includes close to 400 Advanced Patriot anti-ballistic missiles, 12 anti-submarine aircraft, and 8 diesel submarines.
The prospect of advanced arms deals is riling China's leaders, who fear that Taiwan's recently reelected President, Chen Shui-bian, may push for independence in his second term. "The Chinese are kind of freaking out," concedes a senior Administration official. When National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice visited Beijing recently, former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who heads the Central Military Commission, warned her that China would not "sit idly by" if the U.S. sold key weaponry to Taipei. "China and the U.S. have the potential to reach conflict over the Taiwan issue," says Wang Yong, a Beijing University international relations expert.
The tension will rise this fall when Taiwan's legislature votes on the arms-purchase legislation. The lawmakers, though, are in a quandary. Most are aware Taiwan needs new arms, but because of the high price tag, legislators are fighting over what to buy -- particularly since Taiwan's budget deficit is close to 5% of its gross domestic product. "There is no consensus over what is perceived as the immediate threat. Is it missiles, invasion, or air supremacy?" asks Andrew Yang, secretary general of Taipei's Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies. The arms deal is also becoming an issue in legislative elections set for December because voters prefer funds to be channeled to social welfare or education. "There is a mounting campaign by the public to stop the purchase," says Philip Yang, a security expert at National Taiwan University.
Whatever the lawmakers decide, the Pentagon is sure to keep pressuring Taiwan to upgrade its military. The complex diplomatic dance involving Washington, Taipei, and Beijing gets trickier by the day.
By Stan Crock in Washington, with Matt Kovac in Taipei and Dexter Roberts in Beijing