As Trump riles China, Tai­wan tal­lies costs

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS - Dr James J Zogby

Be­fore get­ting too car­ried away with Tai­wan’s el­e­vated sta­tus un­der a Don­ald Trump pres­i­dency, Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen might want to check her bank bal­ance. Trump’s sug­ges­tion that the “one China” prin­ci­ple - that Tai­wan is a part of China - was up for ne­go­ti­a­tion has al­ready prompted sabre-rat­tling from Chi­nese state me­dia and some in the mil­i­tary es­tab­lish­ment. Taipei’s abil­ity to mit­i­gate any mil­i­tary ac­tion by China will be se­verely lim­ited by its weak econ­omy and a tiny do­mes­tic arms in­dus­try that will take years to build up.

And even if the United States - Tai­wan’s sole arms sup­plier - agrees to sell the ad­vanced weaponry the is­land needs to de­ter a Chi­nese at­tack, Taipei will strug­gle to pay the bill, gov­ern­ment ad­vis­ers and ex­perts say. “The trend in de­fense spend­ing is a ‘slow rise’,” said Chieh Chung, a long-time de­fense ex­pert and re­searcher with the Na­tional Pol­icy Foun­da­tion in Taipei, a think tank. “There isn’t a lot of flex­i­bil­ity in gov­ern­ment fi­nances.”

The abil­ity of Tai­wan to de­fend it­self, and the will­ing­ness of the United States to help it, have been brought into sharp re­lief since Pres­i­dent-elect Trump ac­cepted an un­prece­dented phone call from Pres­i­dent Tsai early this month. Tsai has never con­ceded the “one China” prin­ci­ple and Beijing has never re­nounced the use of force to take back what it deems a way­ward prov­ince, par­tic­u­larly if Tai­wan makes moves to­ward in­de­pen­dence.

De­spite that threat, Tai­wan has spent less than 2 per­cent of its half-a-tril­lion dol­lar econ­omy on its de­fense needs in re­cent years, leav­ing it woe­fully un­able to match a free-spend­ing China mil­i­tar­ily. US-based think tank the Rand Cor­po­ra­tion said in a re­search re­port last year the United States would find it far more chal­leng­ing to come to Tai­wan’s aid in the event of an at­tack now com­pared to two decades ago, due to rapid ad­vances in Chi­nese ca­pa­bil­i­ties. In 1996, only two US air wings would have been need to achieve air su­pe­ri­or­ity at the out­set of a con­flict, but by 2017 that rises to 30, the re­port said.

Arms Sales

Sell­ing arms might be more palat­able, and there is cer­tainly a need. Two of Tai­wan’s four sub­marines date to World War Two, while the two other Dutch-built boats have been in ser­vice for nearly 30 years. But Chieh es­ti­mates sub­marines would cost Tai­wan more than $2 bil­lion each, re­quir­ing a spe­cial budget fundrais­ing via gov­ern­ment bonds - a more ex­pen­sive prospect in a ris­ing in­ter­est rate en­vi­ron­ment.

Any arms sale would also risk pro­vok­ing Beijing. Re­tired Ma­jor-Gen­eral Luo Yuan, a widely read Chi­nese mil­i­tary fig­ure, told Hong Kong’s Phoenix Tele­vi­sion on Mon­day that Tai­wan buy­ing US arms could be con­sid­ered a hos­tile act. “If you want to buy one set of anti-mis­sile sys­tems from the United States, then we’ll set up four in re­sponse on the other side of the Tai­wan Strait, so that you will know pain, that you can’t buy se­cu­rity, and that what you’re ac­tu­ally buy­ing is dan­ger,” he said.

In­dige­nous De­fense In­dus­try

Buy­ing big-ticket items like subs would also be a tough sell at home be­cause Tsai has made de­vel­op­ing an in­dige­nous de­fense in­dus­try a key pol­icy plank to cre­ate jobs and pump up the slug­gish econ­omy, cur­rently grow­ing at less than 2 per­cent. Tai­wan has pre­vi­ously de­vel­oped its own mis­siles and also man­u­fac­tured over 100 of its own fighter jets in the 1990s be­fore the pro­gram with­ered. The navy has just be­gun pro­grams to build a few small war­ships, and next on Tai­wan’s list are sub­marines and ad­vanced jet train­ers.

But crit­ics say it will take years to build a bat­tle-ready fleet, costs would likely be higher than buy­ing sec­ond­hand equip­ment and there is al­most no ex­port mar­ket to sus­tain pro­grams for Tai­wanese de­fense goods. Tai­wan’s re­liance on the United States is there­fore key. “Beijing knows that we have obli­ga­tions to help Tai­wan de­fend it­self and re­sist co­er­cion, as en­shrined in the Tai­wan Re­la­tions Act, and that we make de­ci­sions about our de­fense re­la­tion­ship with Tai­wan based on the threat that China poses,” said Daniel Blu­men­thal, di­rec­tor of Asian Stud­ies at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, and a for­mer US de­fense of­fi­cial.

Trump’s cam­paign rhetoric, how­ever, in­di­cated he may be less likely to go to war over some­one else’s de­fense while re­cent com­ments sug­gest Tai­wan may be a pawn in his trade ne­go­ti­a­tions with China. Madeleine Bordallo, a mem­ber of the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, says throw­ing China a “curve­ball” will make Beijing think twice about is­sues such as Tai­wan. Bordallo backed a de­fense bill sup­port­ing se­nior mil­i­tary ex­changes be­tween the United States and Tai­wan that was ap­proved by Congress this month. “I be­lieve that dif­fer­ent types of en­gage­ment with Tai­wan of­fer us a way to throw that curve­ball in the com­ing years,” she told an au­di­ence at a se­cu­rity con­fer­ence in Taipei this week. “Fur­ther en­gage­ment with Tai­wan is im­por­tant to achiev­ing the strate­gic goal.”

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