Friday, September 14, 2007

Balancing act

Taipei's military muscle is only just enough to deter Beijing

by Jonathan Adams
"Why It Matters" blog, Newsweek, September 13, 2007

Taiwanese Rear Admiral Liu Chih-chien isn't afraid of China. "We're confident that we're stronger than they are. Our training is better," he said on the flight deck of a hand-me-down, U.S.-built destroyer churning straight toward the Chinese coast Wednesday. Later, the thundering clap of the ship's five-inch guns provided an exclamation point to his comments.

Wednesday's mission: to impress a pack of journalists with the respectable (though less than awesome) might of the Taiwanese military. For all the talk of China's rapid military rise, Taiwan still has a qualitative edge in several key areas. One is on the high seas of the Taiwan Strait, where experts say Taipei's four destroyers -- put into service only in the last couple years -- are slightly better than China's Russian-built ships. Earlier in the day, reporters watched the best of Taiwan's Air Force -- U.S.-made F-16's from an elite unit -- scramble into the skies from their base in central Taiwan. The island's crack U.S.-trained pilots are still considered better than China's.

Still, Taiwan's hardware is far from cutting-edge. Take the destroyer: it was originally earmarked for the Shah of Iran, back in the 1970s. But the Iranian Revolution changed those plans. U.S. forces used the ship themselves, then gave it a makeover and sold it plus three others to Taiwan for USD$800 million. Uncle Sam only wants to provide Taiwan with the warships it needs to keep pace with China, nothing more. Ditto for fighters -- Taipei's request to buy top-of-the-line jets has so far been met with stony silence from Washington.

That's part of Washington's delicate balancing act in the Strait. The U.S. wants Taiwan to be strong enough to deter a Chinese attack, but not so strong that it's tempted to formalize its independence, risking war. Washington is able to maintain this balance because it's now the only country willing to sell the island major weaponry. Thus Wednesday's modest display -- a flexing of Taiwan's just-barely-strong-enough military muscle.

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