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U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan Falling Behind Chinese Military Buildup

Weapons exports from the United States to Taiwan are not enough to counterbalance the buildup of China's military, which in recent years has added antisatellite capabilities, an aircraft carrier and more ballistic missiles, Reuters reported on Saturday (see GSN, Aug. 25).

Taiwan has an autonomous government but is still claimed as Chinese territory by Beijing. China has vowed its readiness to use military force to keep Taipei from pursuing full independence. Washington is legally obligated to sell weapons to Taiwan for its self-defense; the Chinese government routinely blasts these deals, going so far at times as to break off high-level military contact with the United States.

The White House is expected to notify Congress this week it will not grant a Taiwanese request to buy next-generation F-16 fighter planes but to instead provide enhancements to existing jets in a new weapons deal . Military experts do not think the upgrades would do much to improve the island nation's strategic balance with China.

China has hundreds of short-range ballistic missiles pointing at Taiwan, according to the Pentagon. In July, the Taiwanese Defense Ministry said it saw no indications that Beijing was lowering deployments near Taiwan despite a recent softening in cross-strait relations.

Taiwan Defense Minister Kao Hua-Chu in the forward to his ministry's yearly white paper said that "we must build forces that are as impregnable as a rock."

The U.S. Defense Department's own annual defense report released last month took a similar view: "Although the [Chinese People's Liberation Army] is contending with a growing array of missions, Taiwan remains its main strategic direction."

"China's increasingly modern weapons and platforms threaten to negate many of those factors upon which Taiwan has depended," the Pentagon said, citing the People's Liberation Army's arsenal of ballistic missiles and its navy and air force, which have benefited from significant budget increases in recent years.

Military analysts largely agree that should fighting break out, Taipei would at best be able to withstand China for several days without any foreign assistance.

""No one's really asking the question, could Taiwan beat China in an all-out conflict," World Security Institute analyst Matt Durnin said. "The question they're asking is whether or not Taiwan could survive long enough in a conflict it would be able to recruit other countries to support it politically or militarily."

Taiwan does not possess a nuclear deterrent -- while China does -- and only has a small quantity of Patriot interceptors to counter a potential missile strike.

Though Taiwan's air force is considered one of its top military assets, analysts believe a well-choreographed surprise Chinese missile attack could effectively ground the island government's aging fighter jets. Taiwan's outmoded navy is seen as even less capable of withstanding a Chinese attack (Blanchard/Standing, Reuters, Sept. 17).

On Monday, Beijing signaled its displeasure with the expected U.S. arms announcement for Taiwan, the Associated Press reported.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei did not spell out what actions China might take in response to the latest U.S. arms deal but said Washington should "refrain from selling arms to Taiwan so as to avoid impairing bilateral relations as well as the peaceful development of cross-strait relations."

U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) on Friday said failure to grant Taipei's request for the next-generation F-16s would be an insult to a longtime ally.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Howard Berman (D-Calif.) said the F-16 enhancements would not go far enough in ensuring Taiwan's defenses against a feared Chinese attack (Christopher Bodeen, Associated Press/Time, Sept. 19).

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