Q. Who sells weapons to Taiwan?A. Due to pressure from China, most nations shy away from supplying arms to Taiwan, although France broke ranks in the 1990s and sold six Lafayette-class frigates and 60 Mirage jet fighters to the island. The major exception, of course, is the U.S., Taiwan's key supplier since the end of World War Two. From 1990 to 2000, the U.S. delivered US$13 billions of arms to Taiwan. And last year, it offered Taiwan its most comprehensive package ever, including four Kidd-class destroyers, eight submarines, and 12 surveillance planes, although Taiwan's request to buy destroyers equipped with the Aegis system, which can simultaneously track up to 200 land, sea and air targets, was deferred.
Besides such government-to-government sales, known as Foreign Military Sales, companies also sell directly to Taiwan via Direct Commercial Sales. The goods involved, such as radar systems and computer equipment, are much less controversial and, in the case of American companies, do not require U.S. Congressional approval.
Q. How much bargaining power does Taiwan have if so few people are willing to sell to it?A. With its inability to play sellers off against each other, Taiwan isn't going to get many major discounts. For their part, companies have to factor in the risk of selling to Taiwan, since it will antagonize China and could lead to the mainland pressuring others not to deal with the company.
Many politicians, journalists, and analysts see the lack of competition as having the potential to translate into bad deals. Wendell Minnick, Jane's Defense Weekly's Taiwan correspondent, says that Taiwan often winds up with equipment that is high-priced, obsolete, or both. That at least "is the perception of many Taiwan officers, and even scholars and politicians." agrees Alexander Huang, a senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Huang says such perceptions got their impetus in the 1980s, when the U.S., in order to assuage Beijing, would often sell Taiwan modified equipment. But things have changed, he says, and the island now gets top-quality equipment.
Q. Why doesn't the U.S. just sell Taiwan the Aegis system and all of the other weapons it wants? After all, it's Taiwan's money.A. More than money is involved in high-tech weapons sales. Others factors include the ability of Taiwan's military to handle the equipment, U.S. relations with China, regional security, and ensuring that America's best technology doesn't fall into the wrong hands. Take the U.S. deferment of Taiwan's request for the Aegis system. One reason was that Taiwan would have difficulty making the leap from its current technological level to Aegis, with the Kidd-class destroyers offered instead to play the role of a steppingstone. Even more than with other advanced systems that Taiwan's military is struggling to cope with, Aegis would present a technical challenge in terms of both operations and maintenance. Another concern in some quarters was that Taiwan could pose a security risk -- the Aegis system could fall into China's hands either forcefully through conflict or peacefully through unification. Then there was the matter that selling the system to Taiwan could trigger China to go ballistic -- literally.
Q. If these arms sales upset China so much, why does the U.S. sell Taiwan anything at all?A. Besides the financial benefits of selling weapons, there are many other reasons why arming Taiwan is important to U.S. interests. Historically, Taiwan has long been on America's side. Ideologically, it is a fellow democracy. Economically, it's one of the top U.S trading partners, and its semiconductor and computer industries are key suppliers to the world economy. Strategically, it sits at the crossroads of Northeast and Southeast Asia, astride vital shipping lanes. And to its east there is little but thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean -- and the U.S. 7th Fleet -- making the island an excellent place from which China could establish itself as a deep sea power and threaten America's monopoly in the area.
Q. Is that why the U.S. offered Taiwan such a huge arms package last year?A. The U.S. has been increasingly supportive of Taiwan during the past two years. Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, says there is now much closer collaboration between the two on policies, strategies, and specific weapons systems. U.S. President George W. Bush has also said that America would do "whatever it takes" to defend the island from an unprovoked Chinese attack. Wariness about China's growing military strength is part of this new attitude -- the mainland has been buying Russian jets, submarines, and destroyers, and deploying 50 more missiles per year along its southern coast opposite Taiwan. According to a recently released U.S. Department of Defense paper on China's military strength, "preparing for a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait is the primary driver for China's military modernization." For Taiwan, repelling such an attack necessitates military upgrading since the island would have to hold out for at least a month until help arrived.
Q. What is the most likely way that China might attack?A. China is clearly the biggest threat to Taiwan, particularly in light of its refusal to renounce the use of force in unifying the island with the mainland. The PRC's missiles are seen as the greatest danger -- they allow for a quick and psychologically devastating strike against which Taiwan has little defense. It fits perfectly into what the U.S. Department of Defense describes as China's move "toward the goal of surprise, deception, and shock effect in the opening phases of a campaign" in order to "bring Taipei to terms quickly." Other threats facing Taiwan include a naval blockade, an amphibious attack, electronic warfare such as using computer viruses, and non-military moves, such as manipulating Taiwan's stockmarket or using psychological warfare, as in its infamous threat to turn the waters around Taiwan into a "sea of fire."
Q. What are Taiwan's best bets when it comes to defending itself?A: According to the Ministry of National Defense, Taiwan is pursuing a policy of "effective deterrence and resolute defense," which seems more than a little vague. What is clear, however, says Andrew Yang, is that "Taiwan has limits in making grand independent strategy because whatever it does has to be coordinated with U.S. perceptions of security in the Taiwan Strait." Complicating matters is that, without a formal U.S. defense guarantee, Taiwan faces the prospect of going it alone against China. This does not bode well since the island's defense budget is falling and the mainland's is rising.
Given all this, Taiwan "needs to be stay nimble - it can only duck so many punches," says one defense contractor. It also has to be careful to avoid "trophyism" -- buying weapons that are impressive but unnecessary, such as heavy-duty tanks that can contribute little to defending Taiwan. And it needs to keep strong links to the U.S. Says Gus Sorenson, vice president of Lockheed Martin, "[U.S. weapons sales] serve the purpose of communicating to the world that the U.S. is willing to release their capability [to Taiwan]. This alone has a certain deterrent power."
Another, and cheaper, option when it comes to deterrence is to pursue the "best defense is a good offense" path and deal with China's missile threat by aiming a few high-powered projectiles right back at the mainland. Alexander Huang points out that given China's immense size, Taiwan would need thousands of missiles to be effective. That is, unless the conventional warheads were replaced with nuclear ones. But the island has officially sworn off nuclear weapons and, even if it had not, it would be unlikely to find a country willing to sell it ballistic missiles.
Q. But couldn't Taiwan make its own missiles, or other weapons, given the problems it has in buying from abroad?A. Taiwan does build plenty of missiles, including those of the air-to-air, surface-to-air, air-to-surface, and anti-ship varieties. The supporting research program, under the Chung Shan Institute of Science and Technology, is considered quite advanced and includes a missile, currently under development, that could potentially reach Shanghai.
Other locally made products include the Perry-class frigates rolled out by the China Shipbuilding Corp. and the 150 Indigenous Defense Fighters built during the 1990s by the Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. after Taiwan became frustrated by years of U.S. refusals to sell it F-16s.
The advantage of such indigenous programs is that they act as a hedge against having weapons requests denied by the U.S., although the research and development of the weapons is heavily reliant on American technology. They also help build up Taiwan's ability to maintain both its own weapons and its production capability. As Andrew Yang says, "In war, the problem is isolation. Once you are finished with missiles and ammunition supplied by the U.S., where are you going to get them without an indigenous program?"
But locally made weapons can also pose major drawbacks, such as prohibitively high costs for spare parts, since Taiwan simply can't match American economies of scale. And many research projects never reach completion, since frequently, just as Taiwan is about to create a technology of its own, the U.S. suddenly decides to make available something similar. "It happens all the time," says Andrew Yang. "If the U.S. smells it [the new technology], they cut the price."
Most importantly, though, Taiwan's weapons have not been tested in war, whereas American products have seen the battlefield or have at least gone through hundreds of intensive experiments. In sum, with American weapons, you know what you are getting; with Taiwanese counterparts, there are a lot of unknowns.
--- Jim Boyce