Taiwan readies to risk vote as bigger China threat looms

Mainland beefing up its armed forces

March 17, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- When China warned Taiwan this week that Beijing was prepared to "shed blood" to prevent the island from declaring independence, military analysts saw the threat as just talk.

The mainland's armed forces aren't capable of launching a successful, large- scale attack on the island, most observers say. And a failed assault would almost certainly spell the end of the unpopular Communist Party.

But as Taiwanese go to the polls tomorrow in an election that could significantly worsen cross-strait relations, the present is not the problem. The future is.

Over the next five to 10 years, the military balance of power across the Taiwan Strait is expected to shift from the island toward the mainland, according to analysts in the United States and Taiwan. As China continues to build short-range ballistic missiles and deploy increasingly sophisticated submarines and destroyers, the threat to Taiwan will only grow.

As early as 2007 -- rumored to be the mainland's tentative reunification deadline -- Beijing could force Taipei to the negotiating table by threatening to launch a deluge of missiles, which could cripple the island's economy and spark chaos.

"It's possible they could take out Taiwan before the U.S. president has had his breakfast," says Gary Klintworth, strategic adviser on China and Taiwan in Australia's Defense Intelligence Organization.

Viewed as renegade province

That may be well be an overstatement, but it's hard to exaggerate Beijing's passion when it comes to Taiwan, which lies 100 miles off its southern coast. Ever since defeated Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek arrived in Taiwan in 1949 at the end of the Chinese Civil War, China has viewed the island as a renegade province. The party has vowed to bring it back to the fold through annihilation, if necessary.

Taiwan has survived because of China's limited military capability and protection from the United States, which is authorized to provide defensive weapons to the island under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

The act also says the United States would view the use of force against Taiwan with "grave concern," a deliberately vague phrase suggesting an American willingness to go to war.

Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are at their highest point since 1996, when China fired missiles near the island to intimidate voters in that year's election, Taiwan's first direct presidential contest. The United States responded by sending two aircraft carriers to the region in a show of force.

`Between war and peace'

This time around, Beijing is furious because Chen Shui-bian, nominee of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, might win the presidency.

"You are choosing between war and peace," a mainland professor warned Taiwanese voters on television this week. Another said Taiwan might have only hours to declare its willingness to hold unification talks if Chen won.

Analysts believe China is building 50 to 60 short-range ballistic missiles each year. Concerned about the growing arsenal, Taiwan recently asked to buy four U.S.-built, Aegis-equipped destroyers, which are designed to shoot down missiles.

The ships eventually could become part of a missile defense shield for Taiwan, which Beijing violently opposes. Last month, Liberation Army Daily, a Chinese military newspaper, suggested that China might try to sink the ships before they could be deployed.

Tough questions for U.S.

Analysts say the destroyers would be a strong symbol of U.S. support and boost the Taiwanese military's morale. The sale remains contentious. Some in Taipei find the cost of $1.6 billion per ship too high. Others in Washington worry about provoking Beijing.

The United States is scheduled to make a decision next month but may wait until the political dust settles after the presidential inauguration May 20.

Even if Washington approves the sale, some wonder about Taiwan's ability to handle such sophisticated equipment at a time when it is struggling to recruit soldiers capable of fighting a high-technology war.

"To operate Aegis, the Taiwan Navy will really have to get serious and change a lot of things," says retired Rear Adm. Eric A. McVadon, who served as defense and naval attache at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in the early 1990s.

Taiwan military woes

Hamstrung by budget cuts and unable to compete with salaries in the private sector, the Taiwanese military has begun a coordinated recruiting drive in the past year as well as a small reserve officer training program.

Officials, though, acknowledge that attracting good candidates is difficult in Taiwan's thriving economy. A petty officer makes a base salary of $930 a month, a little more than half of what a police officer makes.

Taiwan's compulsory military service presents another problem. Young men must serve two years, but most leave after their term is up.

Some seek to avoid duty

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