The new commander of US forces in Asia and the Pacific, Admiral William Fallon, has begun making subtle but distinctive changes in his command's endeavor to keep the peace between Taiwan and China, widely considered to be potentially the most explosive conflict in Asia.
Military officers who asked not to be named because of the sensitivities in Taipei, Beijing, and Washington said the admiral has quietly encouraged Taiwan to strengthen its defenses with increased spending, a better command structure, and defensive missiles, mines, and helicopters. He has urged Taipei to forego high-tech weapons that could be employed in offensive operations.
The officers, noting that Fallon had recently made his first trip to China, said he sought to deter Beijing by reminding Chinese leaders that the US had the capability and resolve to help defend Taiwan. He tried to balance that by proposing new exchanges, inviting Chinese officers to observe US military exercises and having American officers make reciprocal visits to China.
At issue is the fate of the island off the southeastern coast of China that is home for 23 million people. Led by President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), Taiwan seeks to maintain a separate identity from China and eventually to declare formal independence. China, which claims sovereignty over Taiwan, has often threatened to use military force to prevent that independence.
In this volatile confrontation, the US has sought both to restrain Taiwan's move toward independence and to dissuade China from using force against Taiwan, for an urgent reason: Hostilities between Taiwan and China would almost certainly involve the US in an all-out war with China that would be immensely costly in blood and treasure.
Fallon, who took charge of the Pacific Command six months ago, is the American proconsul in Asia and the US officer most responsible for maintaining stability across the Taiwan Strait.
That role has become especially vital as President George W. Bush's officials in Washington have become preoccupied with the war on terror, Iraq and the Middle East.
After studying Taiwan's defenses, the US officers said, the admiral has urged the Taiwanese forces to acquire more strictly defensive weapons. Those include missiles for aerial interceptors, ground-based anti-aircraft missiles, attack helicopters and mines to defend the beaches against amphibious invaders, and transport helicopters to move troops against invading paratroopers.
Officers in the Pacific Command headquarters suggested that the arms package featuring offensive weapons such as diesel-electric submarines and destroyers that Bush officials offered to sell Taiwan in 2001 be allowed to fade away. It has languished in Taipei's legislature due to opposition by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
Like other US officials, the admiral has recommended that Taiwan increase its defense spending, which has been in decline for a decade. Even supporters of Taiwan in Washington have grumbled that the US should not be expected to defend Taiwan if the Taiwanese are not willing to defend themselves.
The US officers said Fallon would like to see better coordination among ground, sea, and air forces in Taiwan, long a criticism of US military offices. Similarly, he has instructed his staff to find ways to coordinate US and Taiwanese operational planning. Several uniformed US officers have been assigned to the American Institute in Taipei to work on that project.
With China, Fallon plans to renew military exchanges that have been curtailed since a Chinese fighter plane collided with a US EP-3 reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea in 2001. The Chinese pilot died and the American crew landed on the island of Hainan.
The admiral was said to be interested in inviting upper middle grade officers, army colonels and navy captains, to observe US military exercises as a way to establish contact with the next generation of Chinese military leaders. Moreover, demonstrating US capabilities would be a form of deterrence.
In return, the Pacific Command hopes to overcome a shortcoming of the past even when military exchanges were routine, which was that US officers were not permitted to watch Chinese maneuvers.
Politically, the US officers said, Taipei should be persuaded that it must do more to prepare to defend itself. Beijing should be reassured that US actions are neither a prelude to an attack nor an effort to speed Taiwanese independence. And Washington is split among those who advocate forging working relations with Beijing and those who see China as the new evil empire.
Keeping all this in balance and moving forward will not be easy.
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Hawaii.
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