Beware Beijing: Stand up for the Republic of China (Taiwan)

Given the warmth that’s emanating from the North Pacific as George W. Bush visits Beijing this week, it’s hard to believe that the United States’ leading foreign-policy concerns before Sept. 11 were China’s downing of a U.S. military surveillance plane, its opposition to missile defense, and its opposition to the U.S. selling Taiwan a major arms package.

Indeed, the hostility evident last year is now so remote that China watchers are hailing a new era of U.S.-China comity. Before breaking into a round of cheers and gambei, though, it’s worth remembering that the biggest potential flashpoint in the relationship — China’s threat to reunify with Taiwan by force — remains.

Those who see new closeness in the relationship attribute it to China’s supportive murmurings and nominal intelligence cooperation on the anti-terrorism front, its plan to release a handful of dissidents ahead of the Bush visit, its accession, with U.S. help, to the World Trade Organization, and its January plan to open direct shipping, trade, and mail links with Taiwan.

What they’re not pointing out is that China maintains its buildup of some 300 missiles designed to blockade Taiwan should the mainland choose to retake the island by force, and its pursuit of a blue-water navy. Indeed, recent months have seen reports of China ordering two Russian destroyers in addition to the two it has already bought. Add to the continued military buildup the uncertainty over whether hawkish hardliners or reformers will be running China in a year’s time, and it’s not at all clear that Beijing’s apparent softening is real or permanent.

Given this uncertainty, the Bush team should not be swayed by China’s chumminess, and instead maintain the hard line on Taiwan that it demonstrated last spring. President Bush declared at the time that the U.S. would do “whatever it takes” to help Taiwan defend itself. And the U.S. promised Taiwan a multibillion-dollar package of weapons, including diesel subs, upgrades to its Patriot anti-missile defenses, and destroyers, designed to counter a possible Chinese maritime and missile blockade. This combination of words and action served to dispel in the minds of China’s foreign-policy establishment any speculation that in the event of Chinese aggression, the U.S. would stand idly by.

If anything, it’s time for the U.S. to reinforce its tough message from last April. A clear, strong stance is the best way to deter China from miscalculating and acting against Taiwan. Yet there has been little progress on the U.S. arms package since it was promised. Consider that in the intervening months:

Germany and the Netherlands, the countries able to build Taiwan the eight diesel subs it was promised, balked for fear of getting punished economically by Beijing.

The U.S. has yet to come up with an alternative means of getting the subs built.

The smaller elements of the defense package, such as torpedoes, aren’t expected to be delivered until the end of 2002.

To be sure, weapons packages for Taiwan have always taken a long time to come to fruition. For example, the F-16s promised to Taiwan in 1992 didn’t get there for five years — and that was considered a fast delivery.

And there’s modestly good news on the arms package this week, with the U.S. scheduling defense-related talks with the Taiwanese in March. Pentagon officials say they are preparing for the Taiwanese some options on getting the subs built. These might include getting U.S. defense companies, none of which currently make diesel subs, to take on the contract. Doing so would be an expensive proposition, requiring the contractor to retool and hire production workers to make a tiny number of boats. Thus, whether the talks result in actual steps being taken towards arms delivery remains to be seen.

It’s important for the U.S. to maintain its tough posture on Taiwan. Clarity on that front is what maintains stability in the U.S.-China relationship, no matter which way the diplomatic breeze is blowing from Beijing.

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