By Jane Rickards
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 16, 2007
TAIPEI, Taiwan, June 15 -- After six years of hesitation, Taiwan's legislature voted Friday night to approve only a small portion of an $18 billion arms package suggested by the Bush administration as the best way to gird the self-ruled island against any attack by China.
The negotiated decision, which passed on a vote of 176 to 20, called for Taiwan to spend $300 million on military purchases from the United States. Legislators approved the purchase of P-3 Orion anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft but declined to equip the island with the advanced PAC-3 antimissile systems encouraged by the Bush administration, opting instead to update existing Patriot missile batteries.
Legislators also declined to purchase diesel-electric submarines as suggested by Washington but promised to study the issue further.
The approved purchases fall far short of the arms package proposed by the Bush administration in 2001 as the best way to meet the challenge of China's military buildup. The legislature's decision seemed likely to intensify complaints in Washington that Taiwan is unwilling to shoulder the expenses necessary to maintain a level of military preparedness.
Stephen Young, director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy here, had repeatedly called on Taiwan's government and legislature to come up with funds for the arms package suggested by Washington. But despite his appeals, and those of other officials in the Bush administration, the issue had long been bogged down in Taiwan's partisan politics.
President Chen Shui-bian and his pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party battled long and hard to get the arms package funded, calling it vital for Taiwan's defense. But the opposition Nationalist Party, which controls the Legislative Yuan, refused to endorse it, saying the suggested purchases were too expensive, inappropriate for Taiwan's needs and likely to fuel an arms race with the mainland.
Philip Yang, a political science professor at National Taiwan University, said the Nationalists decided to endorse at least the Orion aircraft purchase under the influence of Ma Yingjeou, the Nationalist candidate in the 2008 presidential election, who is eager to show he can deliver better relations with the United States than the often-contentious Chen.
Analysts said the approval of even a small part of the arms package might persuade Washington to approve a Taiwanese request for purchase of advanced F-16 aircraft. The budget called for buying the F-16s if Washington agreed to sell them, according to Su Chi, a Nationalist lawmaker.
The Bush administration had been unwilling to entertain the Taiwanese request for F-16s, saying the languishing 2001 arms package proposal had to be dealt with first.