The Pentagon's dissatisfaction with delays over the arms procurement bill has led it to voice inappropriate criticism, saying basically that if Taiwan does not buy weapons to defend itself, then the US has no obligation to defend us. Minister of National Defense Lee Jye (李傑) has responded by saying that the criticism smacks of interference in domestic affairs, but at the same time, Lee also said that Taiwan should not ignore this warning. In acting in this way, he is showing a forthrightness and frank appreciation of the situation that is characteristic of a military man.
The development of Taiwan's democracy, the dramatic changes in the cross-strait relationship and relations with the US, and the impact of China's "rising" mean that Taiwan's purchase of arms from the US is not a simple military problem, but is a complex issue that is critical to the security of the Taiwan Strait and the relationship between Taiwan, the US and China.
At present, the issues holding up the passage of the arms procurement act include political feuding, pressure on the budget, the outcome of the referendum and fears of igniting a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. These can all be regarded as domestic issues and are the result of political parties and camps having different interpretations of the cross-strait situation. Whether such domestic issues should influence foreign policy is an important question in the study of political science, but the US' response to the arms procurement debacle more than proves that domestic issues have a decisive influence.
The administration of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has put the focus of its concern on military security and US relations. They fear the growing military threat presented by China and the imbalance in military preparedness. As they believe that China will never relinquish its ambition to annex Taiwan, they have put their faith in the purchase of advanced weapons and military modernization, as well as improving military cooperation with the US, and making themselves part of the US effort to contain China. They believe that this provides the best guarantee of security.
The DPP's position emphasizes the difference in materials and facilities, but has neglected to give sufficient consideration to the impact the arms purchase may have on security, and therefore tends to put too much faith in the offer of US protection.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP), which make up the pan-blue camp, place a greater emphasis on the development of peaceful cross-strait relations and are unwilling to see a conflict in the Strait. They point to the high level of mutual economic dependency that exists across the Strait and argue that military parity would not help ensure peace and stability in the Strait.
As China has pointed to Taiwan independence aspirations as the main cause of conflict, the pan-blue camp argues that the necessity of the arms procurement deal must be assessed in terms of its impact on cross-strait peace, in addition to the debt that such a purchase would lay on the next generation, worries about a financial crisis and the individual items on the list of proposed purchases.
In political theory, this is a more structural argument, compared to the more realist one presented by the government. It emphasizes perception and beliefs, but this cannot negate the importance of strengthening Taiwan's military and improving relations with the US.
In addition, domestic issues within the US have influenced the arms procurement act. The Clinton administration initiated the policy of engaging with China. Most of the items on the arms procurement bill were first raised with the US at that time, but the Democrats put the issue on hold. The current Bush administration approved the sales as a way of turning around the US' policy on China, but they had no way of understanding the full implications of the transition of power from the KMT to the DPP, and as a result, the procurement of arms became a weapon in interparty struggle.
The threats now coming from the US regarding Taiwan's inability to pass the arms procurement bill will not only not help reconcile the different perspectives of the two political camps, but will make future relations between Taiwan and the US even more complex.
Due to the boycott of the arms procurement bill by the pan-blue camp, it has yet to be debated in the legislature, and in most cases, the position of the general public on the issue depends largely on party affiliation. The use of populist rhetoric by both sides has further increased the influence of the arms procurement issue on the domestic political scene. Domestic politics has clearly become critical to both the cross-strait and national security debates.
Because of the current political climate, propaganda far outweighs reasoned argument, so it seems likely that the proposed arms procurement bill, among other political decisions, must await an election for a final resolution.
Philip Yang is an associate professor of political science at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Ian Bartholomew
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