As outgoing Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Lien Chan (
A wide array of US officials and experts have directly charged Lien with being responsible for undermining the arms procurement, which they say is vital for Taiwan's defense in the face of an increasingly belligerent China.
The bill, which would provide a supplementary budget of NT$410.8 billion to purchase three major weapons systems from the US, has been the focus of a bitter battle between the ruling pan-green camp and its pan-blue rival, which holds a majority in the Legislative Yuan.
PHOTO: LIAO CHEN-HUEI, TAIPEI TIMES
Supporters of the bill say that the weapons systems it would allow Taiwan to purchase -- eight diesel-electric submarines, 12 P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft and three PAC-3 Patriot anti-missile batteries -- could help narrow the gap between China's and Taiwan's military capabilities. This would enable democratic Taiwan to hold out against the authoritarian behemoth until the US and its allies could intervene, many experts say.
However, the KMT and its ally the People First Party have criticized the bill as being too expensive, and say that the weapons systems are largely unnecessary.
On May 27, more than 30 US Congress members signed a letter sent to Lien expressing concern about the blocked arms budget bill.
"Failure to pass the special budget has raised concerns in the United States about Taiwan's ability to defend itself against potential aggression," the letter said.
"We encourage you to affirm your party's commitment to a strong defense force and a strong US-Taiwan relationship by supporting these purchases in full and without further delay," the congress members wrote.
The letter refrained from singling out Lien as the primary person responsible for blocking the arms budget, but Washington insiders told the Taipei Times in May that the original draft of the letter was much more critical of the outgoing chairman. The language was toned down in an effort to give Lien room to compromise, the sources said.
On June 14, Jason Yuan (
In the letter, Lien made it clear that his position was that President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), not the KMT, were responsible for the special arms budget's failure to move forward.
"The Kuomintang (KMT) has always believed in credible defense capabilities while advocating peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," Lien wrote in his response.
"However, a word or two for the present case seem to be in order," Lien said.
US President George W. Bush approved a raft of weapons systems, including the three major weapons systems included in the special budget, for purchase by Taiwan in April 2001.
But, "for reasons never explained to the nation, however, the Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] administration procrastinated for three years and did not present a special budget request for NT$610.8 billion (US$18 billion) until June 2, 2004, only nine days before the legislative session was to end," Lien said.
Lien added that the Ministry of National Defense (MND) "first indicated to the Defense Committee of the Legislative Yuan, in a closed-door session in May 2002, a figure of NT$280 billion although no budget request was presented at the time."
However, given the lengthy bureaucratic process for submitting weapons purchase requests -- an average of 22 months -- it is unlikely that the MND could have submitted a budget request any earlier than mid-2003. In order to expedite the procurement of systems that were deemed vital to national defense, the president ordered the MND in July 2003 to submit a special request for the three weapons systems included in the budget.
As it was not until 2003 that a special budget was first proposed, it is not clear what Lien is referring to when he cites "a figure of NT$280 billion" offered in 2002.
Finally, a former senior Pentagon official said that Taiwan "did not decide to pursue the PAC-3 until spring of 2003, after discussions with senior US officials," while it was impossible for the Taiwanese navy to submit a budget request for submarines until 2003, as the US navy did not even release its independent cost estimate for the subs until December 2002.
Lien then claims in his letter that "the `explanations' of the [MND] have been no more than a few sporadic brief pages and slides."
Yet according to media reports and the MND, Minister of National Defense Lee Jye (
The MND was also responsible for printing brochures and charts regarding the special arms budget, which were distributed to the public, and has even erected billboards outside of military facilities explaining its position on the special arms budget.
Despite this high-profile offensive by the MND, the KMT legislative caucus has successfully blocked the special budget 26 times since it was first submitted. Each time, the obstruction occurred in the Procedure Committee, not the Defense Committee, which would normally be responsible for carrying out a debate about the bill's pros and cons.
Finally, Lien wrote in his letter that "Chen Shui-bian himself also committed a serious blunder by insisting on holding a referendum on whether or not to purchase the PAC-3s ... only to find the referendum vetoed by the people because less than a majority of all qualified voters cast their votes."
But the precise language used in the referendum on March 20 last year was: "Should mainland China refuse to dismantle the missiles targeting Taiwan and openly renounce the use of force against us, do you agree that the government should purchase more advanced anti-missile weapons to strengthen Taiwan's self-defense capabilities?"
According to the Central Election Commission's figures, 7,452,340 people voted on the referendum, representing 45.17 percent of eligible voters, with 359,711 invalid ballots.
Among the valid ballots, 6,511,216 people voted yes, while 581,413 voted no -- approximately 11 to one in favor of the question, although, as Lien notes, the margin of participating voters was not large enough to give the referendum the force of law.
US officials have now placed their hope in incoming KMT chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who they hope will be able to break the legislative deadlock and negotiate a compromise on behalf of his party.
Two visiting US academics, Gary Schmitt, the executive director of the Project for the New American Century, and Dan Blumenthal, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told the Taipei Times last month that many US officials believed that the arms budget would not pass until Lien relinquished control of the KMT.
Blumenthal said that his sources had indicated a possible compromise -- including breaking up the weapons systems in the special budget and including at least one of them in the annual budget.
A former US military official with Defense Committee contacts also confirmed that legislators "began working on a compromise two months ago," but added that he could not say for sure if a deal had been reached yet.
With Lien out of the picture, observers of Taiwan's security are now watching to see if the KMT is willing to make any progress on the issue, viewing it as a test of the party's direction and its commitment to the US-Taiwan relationship.
Still, Ma has not clearly articulated his views on the special budget. But now that the KMT chairmanship election is over, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (
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