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Politics Puts Hold on Taiwan Arms Purchase

Zhang Ya Chung, a former diplomat who teaches at National Taiwan University, has organized a group called Democracy Action Alliance to promote opposing views. His followers staged a rally that drew more than 10,000 people in Taipei two weeks ago, and they have scheduled similar gatherings in other Taiwan cities to fight the sale.

"We think this big amount of weapons cannot protect Taiwan," Zhang said. "China is such a big country. How can Taiwan win an arms race with China?"

A couple in Beijing walk by a billboard of a Chinese warship firing a missile. The U.S. wants Taiwan wants to buy arms to maintain a balance of power. (Ng Han Guan -- AP)

Public opinion polls have portrayed a divided picture, with government surveys showing a majority approving the purchase and opposition surveys showing a majority against it. Zhang and other opponents said the public had spoken by defeating a government-sponsored ballot initiative last March asking whether Taiwan should acquire more advanced weapons.

Few in Taiwan have suggested the island does not need at least some of the new arms. Its submarine fleet consists of two World War II Guppies and a pair of Dutch-made Zwaardvis-class craft acquired 16 years ago. By contrast, China could field more than 40 submarines around this 13,800-square-mile island, including quiet Kilo-class craft purchased from Russia and China's own Ming- and Song-class subs.

With the deployment of short-range ballistic missiles in southern China growing by about 75 a year, U.S. and Taiwanese officials here have argued, the need for PAC-3 antimissile systems is obvious. And they said the Orion submarine hunters would be necessary in any conflict to defend against China's growing underwater fleet.

"We are losing our qualitative edge," said Joseph Wu, who heads Chen's key Mainland Affairs Council. But the issue at hand is whether the deal pushed by the Bush administration and adopted by the Chen government is a wise balance of Taiwan's defense needs and its economic resources, opponents said.

"We are not against the military sale, but we have to think about whether we can afford it," said James Song, who heads the People First Party, which is allied with the main opposition group, the Nationalist Party. In an interview, he added: "We must do good shopping. We must get what is best for us."

The Nationalists, who were in power when discussions began on the arms sales during the Clinton administration, so far have maintained an ambiguous position, criticizing Chen's deal but not saying clearly how the party will vote. Political figures said the outcome of voting in December would help shape the Nationalists' stand.

The current legislature will return in late December for a final sitting. By then, the makeup of the newly elected Taiwanese legislature will be known. If Chen's party has a majority in the next legislature, which begins in March, the new atmosphere could favor the government, Bikhim and other politicians suggested. "We are not going to just give up if this doesn't pass now," Bikhim said in an interview.

But the post-election situation is far from clear, other analysts cautioned, and passage of the arms budget as it now stands is not guaranteed even if Chen's party is victorious in December.

Special correspondent Tim Culpan contributed to this report.

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