As the new administration of US President George W. Bush will consider its annual sale of arms to Taiwan in April, hardliners in the US Congress and the US media are joining forces to press the administration into selling advanced arms to the island province.
A survey by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released on March 12 said that Taiwan urgently needs access to high-tech arms, training and intelligence from Washington if it is to repel a growing military threat from China, according to an AFP story.
The report allegedly said: "It is time to admit that continuing our current policy towards Taiwan will guarantee the destruction of that island democracy by China's rapidly expanding military forces."
The so-called growing military threat to Taiwan from the Chinese mainland has been repeatedly cited by some in the United States when lobbying for expanded US weapons sales to Taiwan.
Their calls increased in volume in the US media after the Chinese Government announced earlier this month that it would increase its defence budget by 17.7 per cent this year, although China's defence budget is only 5.5 per cent of the United States' and the current increase is mainly aimed at giving the country's 2.5 million servicemen pay rises.
On this year's wish list, Taiwan is reportedly fishing for such high-tech weapons as four missile destroyers equipped with the Aegis early warning system and four Kidd class destroyers. Other items on the list include Patriot PAC-III missiles, submarine hunting aircraft, high-speed anti-radiation missiles, AIM-120 air-to-air missiles and ship-to-ship missiles.
US officials refer to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to justify the country's arms sales to Taiwan. They claim that the United States is obliged under the act to sell the island enough arms to help it defend itself.
From a purely military point of view, the offensive weapons on Taiwan's shopping list this year would enhance the island's capability to attack the Chinese mainland, said Yan Xuetong, executive director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University.
If the US Government allows the sale of Aegis and Patriot-III to Taiwan, Sino-US relations will suffer a major setback, the expert warned.
The sale of Aegis and Patriot-III would put Taiwan into the US Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) system, he said.
Yan's view was echoed by another expert, Qin Yongchun. "The acquirement of these highly sensitive weapons would be a de facto recognition that Taiwan is included in the US TMD shield, thus posing a serious threat to the Chinese mainland," said Qin, a senior researcher with the Centre for Peace and Development Studies.
The Taiwan authorities have made no attempt to conceal the connection those weapons have with TMD. "Aegis destroyers and anti-missile Patriot missiles form the backbone of the Theatre Missile Defence system being developed by the United States," Taiwan's "defence ministry spokesman" Kung Fan-ting was quoted by a Reuters story in December as saying.
On Capitol Hill, hawkish congress members have expressed their strong support for the sale of highly sensitive weapons to Taiwan.
On Monday, some 60 US lawmakers reportedly signed a letter urging President Bush to give "full consideration" to selling Taiwan the advanced Aegis missile defence system.
Whether or not the Aegis sales to Taiwan are approved will be considered by China as an indicator of the direction the United States is going as concerns its China policy, said Yan Xuetong.
The approval of Aegis sales would signal that there would be direct US military involvement if a conflict occurs across the Taiwan Straits, he said.
It would also indicate that the Bush administration wants to look upon China as a rival and that it will make a shift from the former "comprehensive engagement" policy to one aimed at preventing China from growing into a stronger country, Yan said.
Following such a change, the United States would be very likely to expand its arms sales to Taiwan, viewing weapons sales as a measure to prevent China from becoming a "threat" and to achieve "miltary balance" across the Taiwan Straits.
Although the US Government is yet to make a move to change its China policy, it is possible that Sino-US relations will sour in the coming months before an opportunity to improve the situation emerges this October, when Bush plans to attend APEC Summit in China, Yan predicts.
In the same vein, Qin Yongchun said that the deeper China's reforms go, the more ups and downs Sino-US relations experience, although China has been integrating itself into the international community since it established formal diplomatic relations with the United States 22 years ago.
The Bush administration is very likely to reverse the US attitude towards China, Qin said.
Three reasons may contribute to this change of approach, he said.
First, China's dynamic economic growth and enhanced national strength has made it the world's largest market. At the same time, the country is gradually growing into a bigger economic player in the world.
Second, the United States has never regarded China as a political alley.
Viewing China as an "untamed"country, it only recognizes China as a partner in the field of trade, one that is different from its Western allies.
Third, the United States fears that China will grow stronger, especially militarily. In the eyes of the United States, compared with other Asian countries, China has a stronger desire to play an important role in regional security issues. This is something the United States does not want, unwilling as it is to see any country exert influence in any region that is equal to that of itself.
Because of the above reasons, some in the United States hold that if bilateral ties grow too warm, the interests of the United States would be hurt, Qin said.
"Whenever there is a sign that Sino-US relations are warming, they find excuses to pour cold water on it or even create tension," he said.
The Taiwan question is a major barometer of Sino-US relations. Developing ties with Taiwan has always come first for some politicians in the United States before the development of ties with the Chinese mainland, Qin said.
Although both China and the United States do not want to see an all-out war over the Taiwan Straits, it seems Washington has failed to come to grips with the Chinese perception that US arms sales to Taiwan will encourage separatist elements in Taiwan to continue to seek political independence, said Yan.
Vice-Premier Qin Qichen's on-going visit to the United States will make the US side understand China's serious concern about US arms sales to Taiwan and make it clear that the sales would pose a threat to China's security interests, Yan said.
(China Daily 03/23/2001)