Taiwan’s Real Bind

Congressional Republicans are correct in saying the Clinton administration’s new arms-sales package for Taiwan denies the island weapons it needs. However, what Congress proposes would go too far in the other direction without addressing Taiwan’s real military shortcomings.

Congress would like to see the United States sell Taiwan several destroyers equipped with Aegis radar systems that can track and help shoot down Chinese ballistic missiles. Given China’s missile firings near Taiwan in 1995 and 1996, as well as Beijing’s recent buildup of short-range missiles along its coast near Taiwan, this seems understandable.

But there are several problems with the plan. First, the Aegis technology is unproven—even the versions our own military uses will not provide reliable defenses against ballistic missiles for several years. And even if Taiwan had these ships and the antimissile systems worked perfectly, China has so many missiles it could always overwhelm them with a large attack.

In addition, Chinese ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads are less of a threat to Taiwan than meets the eye. They are far too inaccurate to threaten Taiwan’s military bases seriously. Yes, they can still be used against cities to incite terror among civilians. However, history—from World War II to the Iran-Iraq “war of the cities” in the 1980’s to the Persian Gulf war—shows that missiles alone are not enough to win a war. A decisive attack must follow.

The fact is, China isn’t really capable of invading Taiwan. Most of the island’s beaches are inhospitable to amphibious assault; China does little training for large-scale amphibious or airborne attacks, which are among the most complex military operations; Taiwan has good reconnaissance and would know about any attempted invasion in advance. And even if the Chinese military could somehow acquire a foothold, it has the capacity to move only about 20,000 troops by sea and air at a time. They would be quickly overwhelmed by Taiwanese forces numbering a quarter-million active-duty personnel and 1.5 million reservists and enjoying internal lines of communication.

In the event of hostilities, Taiwan’s real worry should be a “leaky blockade” by China. Beijing could send out its attack submarines, many of which are reasonably modern, and declare a quarantine around the island, threatening to sink any ships within a couple of hundred miles of its shores. Even if 9 ships out of 10 got through, many others would be discouraged from attempting the trip; the cost of shipping would soar and Taiwan’s economy would crumble; and pressure for political capitulation would mount.

Aegis destroyers, designed for air defense, would be no antidote to a blockade. Taiwan needs the tools of antisubmarine warfare that the administration has pointedly left off its sales list—especially the P-3 Orion aircraft, which can drop buoys with sonar devices and fire torpedoes at any submarines the buoys detect. (We could also help Taiwan upgrade its decaying submarine fleet—though selling it submarines would be more provocative to China.)

Congress could make a good case for the Orion, yet it is intent on demanding that we sell Taiwan any and all arms that the Taiwanese request. It has made the Aegis systems, unnecessary as they are, the symbol of solidarity with Taiwan. Why not drop the symbols and push the administration to help Taiwan’s defenses against the real threat?