Wall Street Journal
July 21, 2008
By Ting-i Tsai
TAIPEI -- The White House appears increasingly unlikely to proceed with a planned $11 billion weapons sale to Taiwan, a decision that critics say could alter the strategic balance between the island and China and that could leave a thorny issue for the next U.S. president.
The weapons package -- which includes antimissile systems sold by Raytheon Co. and helicopters from United Technologies Corp. and Boeing Co. -- originated with an offer by U.S. President George W. Bush just months after he took office in 2001. The arms offer was the biggest for Taiwan in at least a decade, but political infighting on the island blocked allocation of funds until last December, when its legislature finally approved funding.
Since then, however, the Bush administration has yet to send formal requests to Congress that are needed for such sales, raising questions about the deal's prospects.
Then, in remarks Wednesday, the top U.S. military official in the Pacific effectively acknowledged that the Bush administration has frozen arms sales to Taiwan, at least temporarily. Adm. Timothy Keating said U.S. analysis "indicates there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this moment, arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we're talking about."
Some proponents of the sale are now worried it won't happen before Mr. Bush finishes his term in January. "It seems reasonably clear that the [Bush] administration has decided not to sell arms to Taiwan," says Harvey Feldman, a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.
The U.S. is obligated to provide Taiwan with "arms of a defensive character" under the Taiwan Relations Act, passed in 1979 to govern relations with the island after the U.S. severed formal ties with it and recognized Beijing. China's government, which claims Taiwan as part of its rightful territory, has long demanded that the U.S. cease all weapons sales to the island.
The delay comes as relations are improving between Taiwan and China under new Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, after years of tension. Officials from the Ma administration and his Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, say the president remains determined to acquire the weapons that Taiwan needs.
Critics say Mr. Ma isn't doing enough to push for the arms package. They point out that the Kuomintang fought budgetary allocation for the weapons for years when it was the opposition party.
Observers suggest there may be less urgency in Taiwan to push for such a sale as relations with China evolve and that a deal would strain any tentative overtures. Two weeks ago the two countries began the first regularly scheduled nonstop flights between them in nearly 60 years. The two sides also agreed to a sharp rise in the number of Chinese tourists allowed to go to Taiwan.
Lawrence Walker, a spokesman for the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei, said the U.S.'s position on arms sales to Taiwan remains unchanged.
Some analysts say Mr. Bush may only be delaying the sale until after he travels to China next month for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. "The best chance [for the sales] is right after the Olympics," said Randall Schriver, a former senior Asia official at the State Department under Mr. Bush.
The $11 billion package includes Boeing Apache Longbow attack helicopters, Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters, Raytheon Patriot PAC-3 air-defense batteries, and designs for diesel electric submarines. For those sales to go through, the State Department must first issue formal "notifications" to Congress, but it hasn't done so.
Unless the U.S. completes legislative approval of the sales by the end of September, the package might have to be reviewed again next summer by the next administration. In addition, Taiwan's allocation for the weapons expires at the end of this year, meaning the legislature would have to approve it again.