Randall Schriver on Taiwan: Defense: Time to take ownership

By Randall Schriver  / 

Wed, Apr 04, 2007 - Page 8

In April 2001, I boarded a plane for Taiwan charged with a very exciting mission. I was tasked, along with two colleagues from the US government, to deliver the US response to Taiwan's requests for military equipment and services.

We brought with us a proposal for the largest arms sales package made available to Taiwan in the history of bilateral relations. But more than that, we brought with us the hope of a new era of cooperation between two long-time friends and democratic partners.

Six years later, I only feel regret, disappointment and frustration upon seeing the arms sales devolve into one of the most contentious bilateral issues between Washington and Taipei. I was proud to play a role -- even a small one -- in 2001 in laying the foundation for unprecedented cooperation. But today the presentation we made to Taiwanese friends in 2001 has become a lingering source of dispute.

In the subsequent six years, the threat from the People's Republic of China (PRC) has grown. The threat has increased in terms of both capability (see the 17.8 percent defense spending increase Beijing announced last month), and intent (see the 2005 "Anti-Secession" Law). Yet remarkably, much of what was offered to Taiwan in 2001 for self-defense has not been procured.

This has led to suspicion among Asia hands in the US government that Taiwan is leaning too heavily on Washington for its defense at a time when the People's Liberation Army (PLA) threat is growing.

Taiwan's domestic politics are causing greater concern in Beijing, and Washington has its hands full in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

So who is at fault?

Everyone is.

The pan-greens, the pan-blues, the US government and the US industry all share the blame over the six year lifespan of these issues.

Though fault is diffuse, we can nonetheless identify where the next step must come from. Only the legislature, or more specifically, the party in control of the legislature, is positioned to take the next meaningful step. The legislature must pass a responsible defense budget and provide resources to procure the major systems made available in 2001.

Clearly designating the Legislative Yuan and its pan-blue leadership as the party that must move next, however, carries the risk of contributing yet another volley in the back-and-forth argument of who is to blame.

Here's where I want to divert from the usual legislature-bashing that Taiwan increasingly hears from the US.

Instead, let's change the nature of the discussion entirely. Let's talk about how the leading party of the legislature can claim defense issues as its own.

Can the legislature take charge and take ownership of defense spending to protect Taiwan?

I believe it can, and it is essential it does so in order to secure enough affirmative votes on a responsible defense budget for successful passage.

Here are five specific ways for the legislature to take charge and ownership of the defense budget as we move forward.

One, in parallel with passing a defense budget with substantial spending increases, the legislature should also add clarifying language as to legislative intent behind previously passed legislation known as the National Defense Act Article 22.

This Act calls for greater reliance on Taiwan's domestic industry for defense procurement. However, implementation to date has been difficult given the vagueness of the legislative guidance. If legislators had greater confidence that more defense spending would translate into more jobs and more profit for home-grown businesses (as is the case with US defense budgets), they would naturally be more inclined to spend taxpayer money on defense.

Two, the legislature should approve funding for research and development of the submarine program. It should also introduce the notion, either in legislative language, or in associated public statements, that Taiwan should consider an indigenous program to produce diesel electric submarines. Doing so would be consistent with the aforementioned Article 22 and would give new momentum to a program stalled because of uncertainties surrounding foreign procurement of design. An indigenous program could produce a scaled-down -- in terms of gross tonnage -- cheaper and multi-purpose submarine. And the US industry need not fret -- an indigenous program would still involve very significant opportunities for US contracts.

Three, when a particular weapons system or platform can be produced by more than one vendor, the legislature should insist that the Ministry of National Defense ask the US government to encourage competition among qualified vendors.

Competition elicits the best value and provides many such benefits such as lower cost, shorter lead time, better technical and support solutions and increased domestic industrial participation.

It is common practice for the US government to insist on competition for its own major procurement programs.

Competition will empower legislators to demonstrate to constituents that Taiwanese are receiving the most capable platform, at the best possible price.

Four, the legislature should declare victory on the referendum of 2004 and move on.

Pan-blue leaders can note the three-year moratorium after the failed referendum has expired and declare that they are now prepared to deliver a responsible package for defense against PLA missiles.

The legislature should approve funding for PAC-3 missiles and more firing units for missile defense.

The legislature should also direct the Ministry of National Defense to investigate re-engineering of firing units that would permit firing of both Patriot missiles and indigenous Tienkung missiles.

Taiwan must invest in more firing units to spread protection to high value civilian and military command locations and other critical infrastructure. Adding flexibility on the missile used in the firing units could also help sustain domestic support for a program that would be seen as creating more jobs at home.

And finally, in parallel with passage of a defense budget, the legislature should also look at measures to strengthen protection of sensitive technologies and related exports.

Such a move may ultimately help Taiwanese manufacturers become a preferred vendor to the US Department of Defense.

Though Taiwan will never be well placed to sell as much defense articles and services to the US as is the case in the reverse direction, over time the defense relationship could become more of a "two-way street."

These steps are well within the authority of Taiwan's legislature.

They could not only lead to final passage of the defense budget under consideration, but also ultimately to a fundamental restructuring of the way that Taiwan approaches defense procurement.

Such a restructuring would in turn help build strong, sustained domestic support for appropriate defense spending to counter the PRC threat.

Randall Schriver is a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and a founding partner of Armitage International LC.

also see story:

Randall Schriver on Taiwan: US-Japan pact matters to Taiwan

Randall Schriver on Taiwan: The 228 Incident and American perceptions