Sun, May 30, 2004 - Page 1 News List

US warns of China's clout across Strait

GROWING THREAT The Pentagon says in a report that Taiwan's military superiority in the Taiwan Strait is being eroded by the modern Chinese army

By Charles Snyder  /  STAFF REPORTER IN WASHINGTON

The Pentagon has warned that Taiwan's military superiority in the Taiwan Strait is being steadily eroded by China's military modernization process, a decline in local defense spending and a "lack of political consensus" on how to deal with the threat of an attack by China.

In its latest annual report to Congress on China's military capabilities and strategies, released on Friday, the US Defense Department also suggested that Beijing may be rethinking its strategy of trying to isolate President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) politically by trying to curry favor with his opponents at home.

But, like similar reports in recent years, it said that the main focus of China's short- and medium-term military modernization is to prepare for a possible attack on Taiwan to force unification with the island, if necessary.

After 20 years of Chinese economic development and military improvements, "the cross-strait balance of power is steadily shifting in China's favor," the report says.

"The People's Liberation Army's offensive capabilities improve each year and provide Beijing with an increasing number of credible options to intimidate or actually attack Taiwan," it says.

On the political front, the report says, "since Chen's March 2004 re-election, Beijing likely has launched an internal debate to assess whether its previous strategy of isolating him by expanding contacts with political and economic Taiwan elite who traditionally have held more favorable views toward unification need to be discarded in favor of a different mix of political, economic, and diplomatic carrots and sticks."

However, the report says, Beijing continues to see the need to "maintain a creditible potential to deliver swift and decisive military force against Taiwan" as a complement to "political, economic and cultural coercion."

The report devotes a great deal of space to Taiwan's continued military shortcomings.

"Taipei's military challenges are not lost on Beijing. The island's apparent lack of political consensus over addressing them with substantially increased defense spending is undoubtedly seen as an encouraging trend in Beijing.

"Taiwan's declining defense spending comes at a time when the island's need to improve its own deterrent options is apparent."

The Pentagon has exerted increasing pressure on Chen's government since he was first elected to boost defense spending and find a way to purchase the arms package that US President George W. Bush agreed to make available in April, 2001.

The Pentagon has long been concerned that Taiwan's defensive weakness might encourage an attack by China. This message was intensified over the recent presidential campaign when China issued a barrage of invasion threats, leading US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to warn Chen in April to take the threats seriously.

Behind the concern is Washington's commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act to be prepared to come to Taiwan's defense, a prospect that worries the Bush administration at a time in which it is heavily militarily committed in Iraq and elsewhere.

The report puts the number of missiles facing Taiwan across the Strait at "about 500," using a figure from last year. This differs from a statement by US Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Lawless in April when he told a congressional committee that "the deployed inventory number 500 to 550 SRBM's [short range ballistic missiles]."

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