The Right Arms for Taiwan

During the standoff with China, the Bush administration wisely stated that future U.S. arms sales to Taiwan would not be influenced by the crisis. Instead, the administration signaled that it would decide which arms to sell Taiwan based strictly on the island’s military needs. It is high time to ask what those needs really are.

Taiwan has requested a slew of weapons ranging from submarines to surface ships to antisubmarine aircraft to advanced munitions. Given its strategic position—a small island of 22 million with a defense budget of $15 billion, facing the world’s largest
nation with annual defense spending around $40 billion—that extensive shopping list
is unsurprising. But the United States needs to base its decision on what arms to sell on a detailed understanding of Taiwan’s military needs, and with an eye toward promoting stability and smooth relations between Taipei and Beijing. That approach calls for a robust package of arms sales this year—but also for a degree of restraint, most specifically over the high-visibility issue of Aegis-class destroyers.

Taiwan is not particularly vulnerable to invasion. Amphibious assault against a small, well-armed, densely populated island such as Taiwan is extremely difficult. China’s ill-equipped and unevenly trained military would have to storm shores known for their ruggedness in the face of Taiwan’s anti-ship weapons, large guns and small arms. Leaders in Taipei would have time to mobilize their reserve forces of more than 1.5 million—100 times the number of troops China could transport in a single journey of its entire amphibious and airborne armadas.

That is not to say Taiwan should be complacent about its invulnerability to invasion. For example, it should continue to harden its airfields and command posts against Chinese surprise attacks. But its real problems lie elsewhere. Specifically, it is at less risk of being conquered than of being strangled or coerced. Chinese missile strikes and naval blockades are its real headaches.

To cope with the risk of blockade, Taiwan needs to improve the naval balance across the strait. China currently has some 70 submarines, with nine of respectable quality. Its surface fleet is almost as large. Taiwan is weaker both on the seas and below. Nor does it have other assets, such as sufficient numbers of high-quality antisubmarine aircraft.

Against this backdrop, the United States should grant Taiwan its request for P-3 aircraft specializing in antisubmarine warfare and sea control. It should also sell ships with improved antisubmarine and air defense capabilities, such as the four Kidd-class destroyers the U.S. Navy no longer needs. The United States should also seriously consider selling Taiwan submarines. It has desisted from such sales in the past out of concern that Taiwan would use them aggressively or preemptively. But Taiwan is too trade-dependent to provoke a game of submarine hit-and-run in the Pacific. Given that it has nothing but four rickety submarines built decades ago, its subsurface fleet probably does need improvement.

The hardest question is the missile issue. China has increased the number of short-range missiles near Taiwan to somewhere between 200 and 300, with no signs of slowing down. In the face of this buildup, Taiwan and the United States should respond. In particular, Washington should agree to sell Taipei its improved Patriot defense system known as the PAC-3.

But the United States should hold off on further sales of theater missile defenses—notably, the Aegis-class destroyers that could ultimately deploy the Navy Theater Wide defense system in 2008 or 2010. There are three reasons for restraint. First, China’s missile threat to Taiwan is a terror instrument of limited utility, not a war-winning instrument. Second, the missiles cannot be reliably stopped anyway. As mentioned, Navy Theater Wide is not yet available. Even when it is, it will not be able to counter short-range missiles that fly within the atmosphere. China could also swamp virtually any missile defense system through sheer force of numbers.

Finally, it is not necessarily a bad thing that Taiwan feel a certain vulnerability. U.S. policy continues to support the notion of one China. That policy in turn requires both Beijing and Taipei to show restraint toward each other. Taipei is most likely to avoid unilateral declarations of independence and other provocative actions if it recognizes there would be costs and risks in such behavior.

But the United States also needs to send China a clear message: Continue the missile buildup and we will sell Taiwan more advanced theater missile defenses in the years ahead. A balance of capabilities across the Strait is acceptable; bullying by China is not.