Tuesday, June 26, 2007

WSJ Thumps Ma Ying-jeou

Slowly, slowly, the US is coming to understand which side is the root cause of the legislature's problems. Today the Wall Street Journal came out with an article that pinpointed the problems on the Taiwan side with the infamous arms purchase. Taiwan Security has it on their website:

It took six years, but Taiwan politicans stopped their bickering last week and passed a much-needed military spending bill. The legislature is finally taking responsibility for the island's defense. Now, can it keep it up?

This bill is a baby step in the right direction. Passed on June 15, it authorizes about $296 million in arms purchases from the U.S. but falls far short of the $18 billion package proposed by the Bush Administration in 2001 as necessary for Taiwan's defense. The legislature approved purchases of 12 P-3 Orion antisubmarine aircraft and significant upgrades to the island's Patriot Advance Capability (PAC-2) missile defense system (though it rejected purchases of the more advanced PAC-3). It's an improvement over Taiwan's current, negligible antimissile capabilities.

These kinds of acquisitions make sense, given the parlous state of Taiwan's military and the threats it faces. China has almost 1,000 missiles aimed at the island and is increasing this number at the rate of about 100 per annum. Last year, Taipei spent about $9.5 billion on defense, while China plumped for between $85 and $120 billion.

The real wonder is why it took Taiwan so long to approve even these limited purchases. First, it took the executive branch three years to present the bill to the legislature, due to disagreements between the Defense Ministry and the cabinet over budgetary constraints. Then the real trouble began, courtesy of the opposition Kuomintang, which, with its partner, the People First Party, holds a legislative majority and has generally opposed the arms package as overpriced and provocative to the mainland. Since 2004, the KMT coalition had rejected the bill for review 60 times.

Not bad, but like all US presentations, it left out the key point that US is also an important driver of the arms purchase issue, as I have noted on numerous occasions (most recently). Here the WSJ falls into factual error: the delay on the Taiwan side was less than two years, as the US Navy took months to come out with its estimate on the submarine prices.

So what changed the opposition's mind? Presidential politics, most likely. Elections are due early next year and KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou is eager to portray himself as a reasonable centrist and show voters that if elected he would not cozy up to China as much as his opponents claim he might. Just days before the legislature was due to end its session, Mr. Ma called on his party to support the bill. Five days later, it passed.

Had Mr. Ma thrown his weight behind the bill earlier in the process, however, Taiwan would have been better off. The Democratic Progressive Party and President Chen Shui-bian have long championed defense spending. But they had to spend years lobbying and negotiating with the opposition to get even this watered-down version approved. If anything, last week's bill is a shadow of what true bipartisan politicking could have achieved.

The next procurement battle over Taiwan arms will take place in Washington. One clause passed in last week's bill provides funding for the purchase of 66 additional F-16s. These planes are meant to replace 90 F-5s -- a vintage fleet from the 1950s that can't even hit a target unless it's within sight. It's unclear whether the Bush Administration will allow the F-16 sale, given that it had conditioned the original offer on Taiwan purchasing the total arms package. China will lobby hard against it.

Taiwan desperately needs these F-16s. Let's hope for once everyone in Washington who knows and loves Taiwan sends the same message to the Administration.

While it may seem paradoxical, Taiwan's defenseless posture is, in itself, a threat to cross-Strait stability. Both presidential candidates -- the KMT's Mr. Ma and the DPP's Frank Hsieh -- say they want to defend Taiwan. If that's true, we'll look forward to seeing more of these spending bills, very soon.

The article overstates our defensive weaknesses -- the military is not in a "parlous" state and we are not "defenseless." But it does make a key point: that not purchasing weapons is destabilizing. Conservatives have correctly identified the pro-China KMT and PFP as a serious problem for the US, for Taiwan, and for Japan. Last year in the US Ma was excoriated by conservatives for his pro-China views (here, here, and here). As I wrote at the time:

Ma is selling a hill of beans. A Taiwan in China's orbit does not merely create a hole in the US security arrangements. It totally isolates Japan. To read this move correctly, one must see Ma's deliverance of Taiwan into China's arms as something aimed at Japan as well -- for both the Chinese Nationalists in Taiwan and their allies in Beijing hate the Japanese. Again, it is worth asking why a Japan-hating, China-loving politician like Ma whose long-term goal is to annex Taiwan to China, will participate in a regional security alliance aimed at China, with Taiwan at its center. The Report does observe that conservatives and DPP supporters were not convinced by Ma's performance.

Expect our friends in Tokyo to engage in some nervous coughing over a Ma presidency as well. I look forward to more warnings directed at the KMT presidential candidate...

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