Sun, Aug 05, 2001 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Be wary of procurement changes

The news that the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has passed a measure to restructure Taiwan's discussions with Washington on arms procurement must be greeted with caution.

On the face of it there should be much to celebrate. Previously Taiwan's arms procurement requests were subject to a singular annual review. This had the disadvantage of imposing a deadline on Taiwan to state its case, after which it had to wait a year, despite the great potential volatility in cross-strait relations, before it could make another pitch. It also worked in China's favor in that for nine months of the year China could threaten Taiwan with all the bellicose "washing the island in blood" style rhetoric it liked and then for three months, in the run-up to the annual review, it could keep quiet, or perhaps make soothing yet unofficial noises about having a more flexible policy on Taiwan which it would combine with a huge lobbying effort in Washington thereby providing a justification for US governments -- often only too willing to try to appease China on this issue -- to "postpone" decisions on improving Taiwan's military capacity from one year to the next.

That the Bush administration desires to change this procedure is a smart move. It greatly increases the US' flexibility in response to any aggressive moves by China. The days of waiting for up to a year between a Chinese provocation and a US decision as to what weapons Taiwan might need to counter such a move should now be over. In theory, the quality and quantity of arms Taiwan receives is directly related to the threat that China has decided to pose. If Beijing threatens Taiwan with missiles the island should be able to immediately seek what ever it needs to protect itself from such a threat. Message to Beijing: If you don't want Taiwan to have enhanced anti-missile technology then don't threaten it with missiles. China will only have itself to blame for escalation.

So far so good. But we do have reasons to be less than wholly enthusiastic about the change in procedure. Under the old system, Taiwan at least got one bite at the apple every year. The very formality of the annual revue which worked to the advantage of China's lobbyists also provided, as it were, a soapbox from which Taiwan could present its case. Now it will no longer have that. It will, instead, have ongoing talks on a case-by-case basis. The problem lies in who is to decide when those talks are necessary? It is not hard to imagine that the Bush administration's idea of "necessary" is rather more accommodating to Taiwan's wishes than the Clinton administration would have been. So what is to prevent a future US government, as keen on appeasement as was Clinton's, to simply deem it not "necessary" to talk about certain weapons procurement requests?

One of the advantages of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which never made it though Congress but since has anyway been deemed unnecessary by the Republican victory last November, was that it required the administration to officially explain to Congress why it was refusing particular arms requests by Taiwan. Something of the same is needed now, to prevent the China-appeasement lobby's ideas of political expediency from interpreting "necessary."

Probably this will not be forthcoming, in which case Taiwan would have to rely on its friends in Congress asking pointed questions on its behalf. So the change the Bush administration seeks might well be a very mixed blessing, good while he is around perhaps but possibly disadvantageous to Taiwan when the White House has another occupant. We can only appeal to Taiwan's friends in Congress to ensure this does not happen.

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