Sun, Oct 22, 2006 - Page 8 News List

Arms bill is now more important than ever

By Lai I-chung 賴怡忠

The North Korean nuclear test on Oct. 9 has caused another security crisis in northeast Asia. The threat has led to fresh changes in east Asia's geopolitical strategic alignment as well as regional security concerns for Taiwan.

With North Korea located only 2.5 hours from Taiwan by plane, the problems caused by its test provide further evidence of Taiwan's pressing need to pass its arms procurement package.

Even before North Korea conducted its nuclear experiment, its testing of long-range missiles in July made it impossible to discount that it might have the ability to produce missiles with nuclear warheads. Although there is no direct conflict between Taiwan and North Korea, it is still very possible that the North could fire missiles if circumstances are further aggravated or in the event of war.

If the missiles are of low quality, it is also possible that they could veer off course toward Taiwan. Taiwan doesn't have adequate missile defense capabilities nor systems to communicate with US or Japanese intelligence. Not only is it unprepared to defend itself from or give warning of a missile attack, but with the lack of intelligence, it might mistakenly react to an incoming missile as an attack from China and plunge the Taiwan Strait into a major crisis as well.

Even though former US president Bill Clinton took a conservative stance on missile defense, he still agreed to establish some limited missile defense capabilities. This was because it could help avoid crises escalating from misfired missiles and prevent rogue states from threatening the US with a small number of missiles. Under the principle of "mutually assured destruction," an attack from a few missiles loaded with weapons of mass destruction would call for a massive response with irreversible consequences.

Having some missile defense capabilities would not only improve Taiwan's strategic flexibility during a crisis, but would also earn it extra time to confirm intelligence and avoid the possibility of intensifying a crisis.

The international sanctions recently passed by the UN against North Korea include the right to conduct searches of vessels or aircraft to prevent missiles from being imported or exported.

Taiwan is located along shipping lanes important to North Korean ships traveling to Southeast Asia, and Kaohsiung harbor has been visited by ships traveling to or from North Korea. It's possible that North Korean ships will enter the Taiwan Strait to avoid being searched by US or Japanese patrols, perhaps even prompting Chinese involvement.

As the weapons procurement package includes a platform for linking with US and Japanese intelligence and provisions for some early warning capabilities, this would be very helpful in dealing with North Korean vessels. Without early access to intelligence, it's possible that a lack of timely communication could create problems in working with the US and Japan. This would introduce another uncertainty factor among the increasing number of variables in the Taiwan Strait.

We shouldn't underestimate the strategic threat that the North Korean nuclear crisis poses to Taiwan, nor the strategic opportunities it presents. If one considers the North Korean nuclear crisis from the perspective of Taiwan's overall national security and also tries to anticipate what the international community may need from Taiwan, the importance of passing the arms procurement package becomes all the more apparent.

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