Analysts wondering if Ma will support arms budget - Taipei Times
Sun, Aug 21, 2005 - Page 3 News List

Analysts wondering if Ma will support arms budget


It has long been Taiwan's NT$480 billion (US$15 billion) question: Will the opposition-controlled legislature agree to buy a package of sophisticated US weapons -- or will it keep balking for fear the deal will trigger an escalating arms race with China?

The debate reflects fundamental issues confronting this nation.

Both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and its ally, the People First Party (PFP), favor eventual unification with China. Critics suggest their objections to the weapons buy are not based on fiscal responsibility, but on a desire to placate China's leaders.

They also suggest that former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰) blocked the deal to get back at President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), whom Lien lost to in two presidential elections.

The special arms procurement budget bill remains snagged in controversy, with opposition lawmakers preventing it from getting even a preliminary hearing.

Valued at NT$ 480 billion (US$15 billion), it includes eight diesel-powered submarines, 12 P-3C maritime patrol aircraft and three PAC-3 Patriot missile batteries.

Government supporters have accused the opposition of playing obstructive games with the issue so they can paint Chen's administration as incompetent.

"The opposition has been stopping everything the DPP proposes, not just the arms deal," said DPP Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴).

The opposition has denied this, saying it takes a principled stand on major government initiatives like the weapons purchase -- particularly in light of a budget deficit that last year exceeded NT$250 billion.

But the government insists the package is necessary, despite the deficit, for Taiwan to defend itself against a rapid Chinese military buildup that began in the mid-90s.

That buildup's centerpiece is a panoply of weapons systems oriented toward a possible invasion of Taiwan, independent defense analysts say.

Alexander Huang (黃介正), a defense expert at Taipei's Tamkang University, says the package's elements suit Taiwan's needs well.

He says the submarines and the anti-submarine aircraft would help counter a blockade, while the Patriots would help protect the nation's infrastructure against incoming missiles.

Ellis Joffe, a China defense expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says the fact of the weapons deal is far more important than its individual components.

"China's main aim is to conquer Taiwan before the US finds the time and determination to intervene," Joffe says, alluding to Washington's hints that it will come to Taiwan's aid if China attacks. "The longer the island can keep up its defense, the better, so any arms will contribute to this."

Last month the US Department of Defense published a report describing how China has pointed 650 to 730 missiles at the country, with about 100 being added each year.

The report referred to the passage in March of a Chinese law codifying the use of force if Taiwan moves toward independence.

Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who replaced Lien as KMT leader on Friday, has now emerged as the key figure in the weapons debate.

A shoo-in to head the KMT' 2008 presidential ticket,Ma is regarded as a strong backer of his party's policy of reconciliation with China -- a stance that would appear to put him at odds with the weapons deal.

Ma's confident said a change in Lien's position was now possible that "Ma will not oppose the deal just for the sake of opposing."

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