Analysis: Taiwan says hello to arms

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan's reaction to America's formal offer of $6.4 billion in weaponry could be summed up as follows: "Thanks — but next time, give us the good stuff. And can we talk about the price?"

Across the Taiwan Strait, China's government and netizens are lashing out at Washington over the deal. But they're conveniently overlooking a couple things. Taiwan asked for the weapons years ago. And despite warming cross-strait relations, most Taiwanese back the deal.

Here, as in Beijing, the offer is seen first and foremost for its political symbolism. With the deal, the United States is signaling that it's in Taiwan's corner.

"It sends a message to China that the U.S. is still concerned about Taiwan," said retired banker Robert Lin, 75, as he and his wife Y.K. finished up lunch in Taipei on Monday. "If the U.S. didn't sell us the weapons, the message is very clear that they don't care."

Like many here, Lin and his wife don't think Taiwan could go toe-to-toe with China in a fight, with or without the weapons cleared for sale last week. Those include 60 Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles, anti-ship missiles, mine-sweeping ships and sophisticated command-and-control software.

"If China attacked, it would be very hard for us to resist," said Lin. So U.S. political and military support is critical.

Most Taiwanese back economic engagement with China. But the number supporting political unification with China is under 10 percent and falling. Only America will sell Taiwan the weapons it needs to prevent being gobbled up by its neighbor.

A Global Views Survey Research Center poll last year found that 48 percent thought it necessary for Taiwan to purchase better weapons, while 37 percent thought it unnecessary.

An Apple Daily poll released Sunday found that 57 percent support buying the arms offered last week, while 30 percent said they weren't necessary (13 percent expressed no view).

The Apple Daily put the U.S. arms news on its front page Sunday, and posted one of its "Action News" clips, made famous by the Tiger Woods animations. (Watch the clip on Youtube. The highlight: the entire island of Taiwan blinking red in alarm at 0:48.)

The daily also parsed U.S. officials' comments, fretting that America's "six assurances" to Taiwan may not be so sure anymore.

That refers to Ronald Reagan's 1982 commitments to a nervous Taiwan as America moved closer to Beijing. Those promises to Taipei included that the U.S. would not consult with Beijing before selling arms to the island, and that Washington's promise to Beijing to curb arms sales to Taiwan was conditioned on Beijing committing to a non-military solution of cross-strait differences.

Other Taiwan media reaction was mixed. The pro-independence Liberty Times lamented that the deal didn't include the advanced F-16 fighter jets or submarines that Taiwan wants (U.S. officials say they're still studying those items).

The Beijing-friendly China Times had sticker shock, reporting claims that the weapons were as much as 40 percent more expensive than their original asking price.

Under the headline "Uncle Sam's a sharp dealer; it never loses out," the China Times wrote that the U.S. was taking advantage of Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Taiwan government officials have publicly thanked the U.S., repeating the line that American weaponry will help Taiwan enter talks with China from a position of strength. Officials promised to look into the price, and if necessary haggle with the Americans to avoid a budget-busting buy.

Last week's release of arms sales to Taiwan was the first under President Barack Obama, and focused on less-sensitive defensive weaponry. It followed several formal "releases" of weaponry first offered by President George W. Bush in 2001.

Those included some $2 billion in sub-hunting aircraft in 2007, $1 billion in upgrades to Patriot anti-missile systems the same year, and $6.4 billion in Apache attack helicopters, Patriot missiles, and anti-ship and anti-tank missiles in 2008.

In Taipei and Washington, such arms are seen as a response to China's rapid military buildup. Beijing's arsenal now bristles with more than 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles and scores of cruise missiles, along with advanced, Russian-made fighter jets and destroyers.

China is also believed to be developing an aircraft carrier-busting, anti-ship ballistic missile that, if and when deployed, could significantly change U.S. war planners' calculus for a Taiwan conflict scenario.

Security analysts say that despite warming cross-strait ties in the past two years, China's aggressive military posture toward the island is unchanged. It's keeping the stick held over Taiwan, even as it dangles the carrot of economic cooperation.

"They haven't scaled down the deployment of missiles targeting Taiwan," said Arthur Ding, secretary general of the Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei. Ding said China's only concession to Taiwan sensibilities in recent years has been to lower the profile of its military exercises.

It's stopped conducting such drills near Taiwan and hyping them through Hong Kong "mouthpiece" media outlets, said Ding, instead running thinly disguised mock Taiwan invasions farther inland or in northern China.

Ding said he's concerned that the defensive items released by the Obama administration last week didn't go far enough.

Taiwan has also requested more than 60 F-16 fighter jets. That's sensitive in part because F-16s have more obvious offensive capabilities, though security experts say China's air defenses are now so advanced that any attempted Taiwan F-16 strike would be a suicide mission.

The island also covets latest-generation aircraft, such as the planned F-35 joint-strike fighter, and high-tech, Aegis-equipped destroyers. But the U.S. typically gives Taiwan only older technology, and sometimes even hand-me-down gear (four destroyers built for the Shah of Iran are now bobbing in Taiwan's military ports).

Experts attribute that to fears of China's wrath, and U.S. concerns that America's cutting-edge technology could end up in China's hands, either through corruption in Taiwan's ranks or the penetration of Taiwan's military by Chinese intelligence.