Thursday, January 17, 2008

Beyond the kickbacks and rapprochement

The Defense News Web site dropped a bombshell of sorts this week with an article on the possible ramifications of a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) victory in Taiwan’s presidential elections in March. In it, a Taiwanese military official raises the specter of a return to the era of kickbacks — i.e., corruption — in military spending, while a former American Institute in Taiwan official is quoted as saying that rapprochement between the "pro-China" KMT and Beijing could spell the end of major US arms sale to Taipei, as Beijing would be unlikely to perceive the “friendlier” KMT regime with the same amount of animosity it has shown toward the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party government.

While these two scenarios are certainly feasible, the article leaves out a third, equally alarming, possibility: that Washington, perceiving a KMT government to be on the brink of capitulating to Beijing, should not sell Taiwan advanced military equipment lest that technology end up in the hands of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). (This fear explains why the US has so far denied Taiwan more advanced aircraft like the F-35 and would instead limit sales to older-generation F16s.) In other words, even if the KMT did not intend to hand over Taiwan “on a platter,” as some analysts have put it, the perception — right or wrong — that Taiwan is headed for “peaceful” annexation via KMT rule would have dire consequences on Washington’s willingness to sell it advanced military technology or even share military intelligence — SIGINT, IMINT, COMINT — with it, something else that was left unaddressed in the Defense News article.

What this means is that even if fears of KMT capitulation turned out to be wrong (and let us pray that this is the case), Taiwan would nevertheless find itself weakened in its defenses, as the US — Taiwan’s only real source of weaponry — would be unwilling to provide it with the equipment, quantitatively and qualitatively, it needs to keep pace with the PLA’s rapid modernization.

All of this, of course, stems from the fact that the end of the Taiwan Strait crisis on Beijing’s “peaceful” terms would by no means mean that US-China competition for regional influence would disappear. Far from it. And with that in mind, the last thing Washington would want is for US-made advanced military technology, transferred from or handed over by Taiwan, to be turned against US soldiers in a future Sino-US armed conflict.

In the end, no matter how one looks at it, a KMT victory in the presidential elections would have catastrophic consequences for Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.

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