The decision by US President George W. Bush's administration to delay the processing of US$12 billion in arms sales to Taiwan dates back at least to last Christmas and recent requests by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) to further delay the process simply reaffirmed US policy, but did not initiate it, sources in Washington say.
The story was broken by Defense News on June 9, but observers said Washington’s decision was more complex and long standing than recent news reports indicate. But, as more details of the situation emerge, the sources warn, the implications could be just as harmful for Taiwan’s defense.
The impetus for the delay, many feel, has been the Bush administration’s craving to curry favor with China for help with a number of foreign policy issues, notably in North Korea, Iraq and Darfur, and the plan by Bush to attend the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing in August.
At the same time, with the US presidential election approaching, the feeling has grown that actions that could potentially inflame US-China tensions, such as arms sales, are better left to the new US administration that will occupy the White House come January.
The most recent word in Washington has been that the decision to freeze the arms sales came as a result of a meeting between Ma and a State Department member of the US delegation to Ma’s inauguration and another meeting late last month between National Security Council Secretary-General Su Chi (蘇起) and Frank Januzzi, a visiting foreign policy aide to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden.
Ma and Su reportedly both told the Americans that while the KMT is not opposed to the arms sales, this was a bad time for them to advance through the Pentagon and the congressional approval process.
“When the message came back from Taipei, that was used at the State Department by [Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia] Chris[topher] Hill and Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice as a perfectly good reason not to move forward on this,” said John Tkacik, a strongly pro-Taiwan academic at the Heritage Foundation.
“Su Chi said this was his ‘personal opinion,’ but the personal opinion of the secretary-general of the National Security Council in Taiwan counts,” Tkacik told reporters on Wednesday, conceding that his information was second-hand.
Januzzi was not in his Senate office on Wednesday and was not available for comment.
Supporters of the arms sales warn that any delay could end up killing the sales and could affect Taiwan’s basic means of survival, if it renders Taiwan incapable of fending off a Chinese military attack at some future time when the US is unwilling or unable to come to Taiwan’s aid, and if China’s rapid military modernization continues apace.
The big concern is that the freeze could become permanent. That is because the new US administration is certain to conduct a review of its Taiwan policy next year, delaying any decisions. If the letters of acquisition are not signed by the end of the year, Taiwan’s defense ministry will have to resubmit its budget to the Legislative Yuan, in which the KMT holds a three-quarters majority, and then all the arms budget items will be reopened for discussion.
The decision to freeze the processing of the arms package predated Ma’s presidential victory, Rupert Hammond-Chambers, the president of the US-Taiwan Business Council, told the Taipei Times.
He said the decision was made before last Christmas at the highest level of the administration.
“And, indeed, by the president himself,” he said.
Hammond-Chambers, whose organization includes the major US defense contractors who supply the lion’s share of US weapons sold to Taiwan, said that Washington is not just “playing team ball,” or reacting to Taipei’s request. He felt that Ma’s government has not ruled out future arms purchases, but just fears a public announcement coming at an embarrassing time could hurt his efforts to improve relations with Beijing.
Hammond-Chambers said that the items in question were far from the stage in the process where they will go to Congress for the 30-day review. Only after that review would the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency make the planned sale public. And that’s the time that China traditionally raises a verbal stink.
“But we are a way of a way from that, so why did the Bush administration stop so early on?” he said. “If they were playing team ball, surely they would walk this process all the way up to the 30-day notification period and then hold back.”
As a result, Hammond-Chambers is critical of the Bush administration.
In recent years, he noted, there has been “an extremely ugly battle [in the legislature over the arms issue] and it has hurt US-Taiwan relations in a very profound way. To not bag this now jeopardizes all that we’ve gone through to reach a point now where we’re finally able to tie this down. And, for the US to undermine that is highly questionable, it’s more than disappointing, it’s counterproductive and hypocritical.”
Tkacik blames the Ma administration.
“Taiwan is making a decision to transfer responsibility for its security from the United States to Beijing,” he told reporters, reasoning that Ma sees no need for new weapons if there is no danger of a Chinese invasion and that he is confident that China will not invade as long as Taiwan does not declare independence.
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