needs more than weapons for protection
small, rich, democratic island of Taiwan could become the
most dangerous place in the world. This is the one place
over which the United States could conceivably go to war
with another nuclear power -- China. Such is the grim prospect
underlying the Bush administration's hotly debated decision
about new arms sales to Taiwan, coming this week. Beijing
considers Taiwan a "renegade province" that must
be reunified with the mainland. The United States insists
Taiwan's status must be resolved peacefully and is pledged
to help Taiwan acquire enough weapons to defend against
current question is whether to sell Taiwan an advanced ship-borne
radar system known as Aegis. In theory, Aegis could someday
help Taiwan link up to a planned U.S. missile defense system
and blunt the threat of China's missile buildup opposite
the island. China bitterly opposes the sale. Conservatives
in Congress want President Bush to approve it. But at its
heart the debate over Aegis is about something bigger: the
best way to protect Taiwan but still avoid a war between
China and the United States.
question is tricky because the Taiwan issue comes wrapped
in a tangle of history and emotions. Taiwan has been cut
off from the Chinese mainland for over a century; it was
first occupied by the Japanese in 1895, then by the fleeing
army of the nationalist Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, who lost the
mainland to the communists in 1949.
Taiwan back has become a visceral nationalist issue on the
mainland. It's seen as a way to obtain redress for historic
slights by foreigners, proof that China can maintain control
over other restless provinces. Liberal Chinese friends snap
when I broach the subject of an independent Taiwan. It's
easy to imagine the Chinese public supporting a war to retain
the island, even if that war made no rational sense.
America, too, has historic ties to Taiwan. We broke formal
diplomatic relations with the Republic of Taiwan when we
recognized China in 1979. But we also signed the Taiwan
Relations Act, which binds us to supply the island with
sufficient weapons for self-defense. We've played a vital
role in Taiwan's shift from an autocracy to one of the most
vibrant democracies and economic success stories in Asia.
Much of the island's political and business elite were educated
Taiwan balances in a political no-man's-land, recognized
by only a few countries, hoping to work out some kind of
loose confederal relationship with China. But that can happen
only when China becomes sufficiently democratic that the
link is not repressive.
U.S. policy is not to back Taiwan's independence but to
dissuade China from settling the matter by force. Trying
that would be a huge mistake for China, and letting them
do that would be a moral catastrophe for us -- and end our
role as a major power in Asia. Which brings us back to the
question of how to help Taiwan defend itself and prevent
China from a major miscalculation.
Aegis radar isn't the answer. The system, with its attendant
destroyers, won't be ready for eight more years. The planned
missile defenses to which it would plug in are unlikely
to work well enough to protect the island from Chinese missiles.
Other weapons systems -- less likely to provoke a Chinese
overreaction -- are better suited to Taiwan's current defense
needs. Aegis systems can be delivered in the future if the
Chinese missile buildup continuesl. But Taiwan needs something
more than mere weapons. As China expert Robert Ross of Boston
College puts it: "U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have minimum
impact. What defends Taiwan is the U.S. commitment. The
key is to convince the Chinese of our continuing commitment."
really bothers China about Aegis is that the U.S. and Taiwanese
militaries would have to work hand in glove. That kind of
close cooperation should be intensified even without the
radar systems -- sending a clear message that our military
will stand behind theirs. Only if China is convinced of
our commitment to Taiwan can we head off a future clash.
Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the
may contact her at email@example.com