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Michael O'Hanlon
Michael O'Hanlon
Post Editorial: The Taiwan Arms Decision
All Quiet on the Right Wing Front April 19, 2001
Jiang Cautions U.S. on Arms Sales March 24, 2001
Talk: World message boards
Live Online Transcripts
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Weapons Sales to Taiwan
With Michael O'Hanlon
Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

Tuesday, April 24, 2001

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution, was online to discuss the Bush administration's decision on selling weapons to Taiwan.

White House officials said that the Bush administration planned to sell Taiwan a variety of arms including four Kidd-class destroyers, a dozen anti-submarine planes, and diesel-powered submarines.

In a recent commentary in The Washington Post, The Right Arms for Taiwan, O'Hanlon argued for a close look at Taiwan's needs and proposed "a robust package of arms sales this year -- but also a degree of restraint, most specifically over the high-visibility issue of Aegis-class destroyers."

O'Hanlon discussed the arms decision and the factors affecting it--including the spy plane incident, U.S.-China relations, trade, and partisan politics.

Read the transcript below:

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Welcome to today's discussion about the United States decision on arms sales to Taiwan.

Blacksburg, VA: Hi Mr.O'Hanlon, if I recall correctly, The Taiwan Relations Act forbids the sale of offensive weapons to Taiwan. Aren't the diesel submarines offensive? Couldn't China just respond by more missile buildup and export more weapons to the rogue nations? Which would create a situation worse than it currently is. What are your thoughts on this matter?

Michael O'Hanlon: Greetings. You make a fair point--but it is difficult to identify most weapons as strictly offensive or strictly defensive. Taiwanese submarines could be used to attack China or ships headed to China. More likely, they would be used to counter PRC submarines that were attacking Taiwan's navy or merchant fleet. Hence they could be used defensively. I think they would be used defensively, because Taiwan is too trade-dependent to provoke a back-and-forth game of submarine hit-and-run in the Western Pacific. Best, Mike

Arlington, VA: There has been so much discussion of active missile defense for Taiwan -- what about passive missile defense measures? What is Taiwan doing to make critical defense nodes, communications links, anti-air systems, and runways more durable in the face of a missile and aerial attack from the PRC? Are they doing enough? Can the US help in this regard?

Michael O'Hanlon: Good questions. My understanding is that Taiwan is presently building hardened shelters for more than half of its fighter jets. Clearly it should build enough for all of them. Unclassified data is unavailable concerning hardening of command posts and so forth, but my impression is that Taiwan does not do enough. Mike

Boston, Mass: Who has more to lose if relations between Beijing and Washington fray further?

Michael O'Hanlon: Hard to say. The bottom line is that, considering the plausible worst case, a US-Chinese war would be absolutely terrible for both. It is the only plausible path to great-power war in the early years of the 21st century that I can think of. On balance China has somewhat more to lose, if the relationship sours further, but it may be more a matter of splitting hairs to really answer that question. I prefer to use the expression that we're in this together. Mike

Fairfax, VA: In your opinion, is Taiwan the biggest sucker in the world to buy this package? The price for this package could run as high as $10 billion, yet it is full of outdated junk. Seems to me Bush is having it both ways. He is throwing a dog bone to our Conservatives by offering quantity rather than quality, knowing Taiwan is not going to break the bank for this. [edited]

Michael O'Hanlon: I think the package isn't bad. As another reader rightly pointed out, there may be more inexpensive ways for Taiwan to do as much for its defense (hardening airfields, etc.) But I think a stronger Taiwanese Navy is also appropriate. Taiwan won't spend more than a couple billion a year over the next few years for this, and I believe they can afford that price. But I am glad that Aegis destroyers were not sold, partly because I share your concern--at least to a certain extent.

Austin, Texas: Given that the US no longer builds diesel subs and given that the PRC has put pressure on Europe not to help Taiwan with subs, what is the likelihood that Taiwan will in the end get the diesel submarines?

Michael O'Hanlon: My understanding is that we could build the subs using a European design. Chances are that this issue can be finessed. But you are right to point out that it remains unresolved. And maybe I will be proven wrong.

Reston, Virginia: What will the long term implication be on the US-China relationship with respect to the increased in arm sale? Do you think it will have any affect on trade?

Michael O'Hanlon: I don't believe that this arms sales package will greatly affect broader US-PRC ties. However, if we sell Aegis destroyers in the years ahead, things could change.

Berkeley,CA: What other political players were influential in the Bush Administration final decision?

Michael O'Hanlon: I think the administration relied on its own people--Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Armitage, Powell, Rice--and perhaps Ambassador Prueher and Admiral Blair. Not sure though

Centreville, VA: Do you believe the Bush administration is holding off on the Aegis destroyers and other technology they're saying they're not sure the ROC can manage so they can have a few sticks to balance with their trade carrots? This way, they look a little more moderate and less knee-jerk, but retain a way to punish further Chinese actions?

Michael O'Hanlon: To a large extent, yes I agree. I think the idea is to have a balanced approach. I am not sure, though, that I'd emphasize the trade issue. I think the real balance was in selling Taiwan most of what it wanted--but not everything

Boston, Mass.: Very few Western businesses have ever profited in China. Recognizing this fact, what have we got to lose by giving Taiwan the recognition it deserves as a democratic country?

Michael O'Hanlon: I won't contest your economics argument, because I don't know enough, but clearly many US firms are optimistic about the future Chinese market. More importantly, though, the issue is not access to the Chinese market, it's preventing war in the Taiwan Strait. And China considers Taiwan such a key part of its territory--perhaps rightly--that I think we need to anticipate how China would react to all-out US support for Taiwan. My guess is that it would increase the odds of some kind of war (even if not an invasion attempt).

Boston, Mass.: We hear a lot from Beijing about what Washington is doing wrong in the bilateral relationship (ie, selling arms to Taiwan, welcoming the Dalai Lama). What do you think China is doing wrong in the bilateral relationship?

Michael O'Hanlon: Oppressing its own people, at least in certain places and cases; retaining a communist-like government; exporting missiles and other dangerous technologies to less-than-responsible countries; and building up too much missile force near Taiwan.

Cambridge, MD: I have a fundamental question on US arm sale to Taiwan. Does the arm sale to Taiwan help to maintain the peace between Taiwan Strait or increase the risk of a potential war? While the Bush administration may argue it is for the sake of peace, the Chinese can argue as strong as Americans that arm sale will worse the current situation in the Taiwan Strait and increase the possibility of a war. Thanks.

Michael O'Hanlon: Arms sales won't lead the US or Taiwan to attack. If they cause China to attack, that's China's decision. China would be most likely to attack if they thought the arms sales package pushed Taiwan towards a declaration of independence. If we show restraint in the sales, however, I think we can avoid such an outcome. So I support this balanced approach.

Boston, Mass.: What should American do to curtail China's aggressive intentions in the South China Sea (ie, they claim most of it as their own, and have forcefully occupied many land masses there)? When we pulled out of the Philippines in the early 90s, the PRC immediately moved to occupy a reef right off the Philippines coast. Should we reassert ourselves there, or simply follow the Clinton policy of encouraging regional powers to have a dialog?

Michael O'Hanlon: I don't think we owe it to the Philippines to defend their claims to reefs and islands in the SCS. However I do think we need to insist on keeping the waterways and airways open to international use. And if China uses excessive force against a regional neighbor, in pursuit of its claims, I think we can respond on a case-by-case basis.

Boston, Mass.: China has nuclear missiles; are any aimed at Taiwan? What can Taiwan do to counter the nuclear threat? What can the U.S. do to counter this threat?

Michael O'Hanlon: China could certainly hit Taiwan with nuclear weapons. It has pledged not to, however--and certainly would lose any moral claim to the right to rule the island if it violated that pledge. If it did use nuclear weapons against Taiwan, I think the United States would have to seriously consider a similar type of response against China.

Spartanburg, SC: In the 1970's Mao Zedong surmised that it might be 50 years before China regained possession of Taiwan. He was obviously willing to wait. Do you think that the current leadership on the mainland is impatient and will seek reunification militarily?

Michael O'Hanlon: I think they have not ruled out such an option--but will also not be crazy enough to actually exercise it, unless other things happen as well

Austin, Texas: It's seems to me that the PRC has been focusing public attention on the Aegis since they knew that it's usefulness to Taiwan is limited militarily. Do you think that the PRC will portray the lack of sale of Aegis as a victory, and do you think that this public relations strategy will increase public opinion on Taiwan to make concessions to the PRC?

Michael O'Hanlon: China knows that if they keep adding lots more missiles near the Taiwan Strait, we will eventually sell Aegis. So Beijing would be badly mistaken to diagnose American weakness in this decision. Plus the package includes a whole lot of weaponry. It is not an example of kowtowing to Beijing, no matter what Bill Kristol and some other conservatives argue.

Takoma Park, MD: Where on earth are the sane voices against destabilizing Asia and creating a new arms race? Why would everyone including Richard Gephardt urge Bush to get a jump start on Cold War 2?

Michael O'Hanlon: Gephardt's statement surprised and disappointed me too. I am not sure what motivates his thinking.

Alexandria, VA: If China - "rightly," as you say - considers Taiwan as its territory, would we be viewed as supporting a rogue country? If so, how would the rest of the world view our advances?

Michael O'Hanlon: Of course, I packed a lot into that word "rightly." What I mean is that both Taiwan and China have historically viewed their lands as linked--at least for the last few decades (one can make historical arguments either way). Plus we don't like to encourage secessionism in most cases because of the precedent. Plus in this case secessionism seems more likely to lead to war than anything else. On the other hand, Taiwan is a longstanding friend, and has a market democracy we admire. So we have to balance competing concerns. I like our current balance.

Boston, Mass.: How much longer do you think the regime in Beijing can last?

Michael O'Hanlon: I believe some type of communist regime can last decades. But I'm hoping it'll just be years.

Boston, MA: You mentioned earlier that China sells weapons technology to unreliable nations. Does it do this because it regards these countries as allies, to use as pressure to get the U.S. to respond to its demands, or just because it needs the money? Also, by exporting missile technology to Islamic countries, doesn't it see any risk in these weapons being used later against its own troops in Xinjiang in the Western PRC, which has a restive Muslim population?

Michael O'Hanlon: I wish leaders in Beijing took your point. but I fear the lure of hard currency is too strong. I think that's the main driver

Montpelier, MD: If we can't get one of our European "allies" to sell Taiwan subs directly or through the US, couldn't the US sell some of its older Los Angeles class subs at a bargain price? After all, the US navy intends to slowly phase out the LA class.

Michael O'Hanlon: I think selling a nuclear sub would be seen as even more provocative. Plus I think it would be less cost-effective for a country essentially defending its own shores and coastal waters. But it's still an interesting idea. I lean against it but will continue to mull it over.

Fairfax, VA: China is a raising regional power. To be a powerful nation, its military strength will certainly be more potent as well. If for a moment that we assume China becomes a democratic country, does US see a powerful Chinese military power as potential friend or foe?

Michael O'Hanlon: Even a democratic China might fight over Taiwan. So I think that we'd prefer democracy, but would still worry.

Boston, Mass.: Some years ago I heard that the one thing that worries the US greatly is instability in China leading to millions of refugees spreading across Japan, Taiwan and even across the Pacific. Do you think that such a worry is valid, and does it guide U.S. desires to keep the current Beijing regime in place, merely for the sake of stability?

Michael O'Hanlon: I am not sure we want the current regime to survive, but agree that stability in China is good for the US. that is part of why we do not favor independence for Taiwan--it could encourage secessionism and strife in other parts of the PRC.

Burke, Virginia: Are there any other countries/nations voicing a strong opinion in support or opposition of the arms sales to Taiwan? (Excluding China).

Michael O'Hanlon: I have not heard other strong reactions. But I would surmise that most US allies, such as Japan, were glad for the balanced approach the Bush team took.

Boston, MA: We heard about how Chinese interceptors have been aggressively harassing US Navy surveillance flights. Have they also been harassing surveillance flights by the Taiwan and Japan militaries? Does China fly surveillance flights against Taiwan and Japan?

Michael O'Hanlon: China does fly surveillance vis-a-vis Taiwan and Japan and other countries in the region. I do not think other militaries fly so close to China, though, so don't believe China has harassed them. But I could be wrong on this too

Taipei, Taiwan: What if Taiwan unilaterally defer buying Aegis for two years in exchange for China withdraw its short and medium-range missiles ?
I Yuan

Michael O'Hanlon: Greetings my friend from across the Pacific. I think that kind of deal would make sense. However I think it is too much to expect China to withdraw all of its missiles. An end to the continued buildup might be good enough for me (though I would still support PAC-3 sales).

Carlisle, PA: Does this promise to supply a range of weapons, which will not include an integrated missile defense system, sufficiently offset the growing number of ballistic missiles that China is deploying? As a corollary, couldn't this gap in the Taiwanese force structure, with possible solutions being considered later, push China into a use it or lose it position? Or will the buildup between the two continue without end?

Michael O'Hanlon: China would be foolish to use these missiles due to a use them or lose them dynamic. Using these missiles would embitter the world against Beijing and fail to achieve any direct military goals in all likelihood. Moreover this arms sales package does little to deal with the missile issue. Wait for next year on that!

Philadelphia PA: The mainland China's made it crystal clear that if Taiwan declare independence it will use force to reunify it. At least in the predictable future Taiwan independence is almost the only reason for a war between the Mainland and Taiwan. The missile buildup along the mainland coast can certainly be better interpreted or understand as determent than as preparation for unprovoked aggressive attack. Given that weapon sale may encourage Taiwan independence, do you think it actually helps to maintain the peace in that region? A war between US and China will certainly be disaster. Is US playing fire here? How big the factor the 4 billion dollars is?

Michael O'Hanlon: I think we should recognize that there are grey areas here. China launched missiles in 1995 and 1996 even though Taiwan did not declare independence. It continues its missile buildup now even though the new Taiwanese leader is not moving towards independence. I understand why China wants a deterrent, but it is overplaying its hand. I am nervous about Taiwan declaring independence. I am also nervous about China gaining too much confidence and pushing for near-term talks on reunification in the belief that its missile capability will convince Taipei to say yes. I want to restrain both sides

Washington, DC`: I heard that the Navy is to begin building hulls for Arleigh-Burke destroyers so that we would be capable of delivering them several years down the line if our policy on Taiwan arm sales changes. Doing so will also put China on notice to rein in its missile deployments. Have you heard this? If so, is it also true that these hulls are manufactured in Mississippi?

Michael O'Hanlon: We are not yet building any hulls for Taiwan. I doubt we will begin to do so because someone would have to pay for them. yes, they could be built at least in part in Senator Lott's state. But the Bush administration has already proven it's prepared to disregard his advice

Taipei, Taiwan: Dear Mr. O'Hanlon,

The Kidd-classed destroyers are much less potent weapons. Does Taiwan still need to buy them, considering there are more important domestic priorities that need our government to do such as to help the unemployment?

As to the eight diesel submarines, they are said to be designed by Netherlands and build in German. Does the U.S. government inform both countries already? The China authority will certainly protest fiercely to Netherlands and Germany. Is there very high uncertainty to be faced by the sale of these submarines?

Commercial Times
Taipei Taiwan

Michael O'Hanlon: I think the Kidd destroyers are good ships and a good bargain. As for the politics of the submarines, time will tell. But we may build them here

Laurel, MD: Old news: China has been building up its (hopefully conventional) short range missile force opposite Taiwan. Assume these missiles are probably fairly inaccurate. I.e., they are weapons of terror against civilians. If launched in mass quantities, any near to mid-term theater missile defense system would probably, at best, only stop a fraction of them. [edited]

Michael O'Hanlon: I agree. China will have a limited missile threat against Taiwan indefinitely, whether we sell Taiwan better TMD or not--and that capability is primarily a terror capability, not a war-winning asset

Dallas, TX: What is the current military relationship between PRC and Israel? What is Bush administration's approach to the military technology transfer from Israel to PRC?

Michael O'Hanlon: I believe a PRC-Israeli relationship still exists. The Bush administration will surely strongly discourage any significant high-tech sales to China, however

Boston, Mass.: Taiwan still has a few dozen countries that "recognize" it as the legitimate "Republic of China". If Beijing is successful at winning these remaining countries over, what would that mean for Taiwan, besides losing a chance to have pro-Taiwan motions heard in the U.N.?

Michael O'Hanlon: not much, except that perhaps Taiwan would feel less confidence to pursue other gradual paths towards quasi-independence. I personally hope other countries would break formal ties with Taiwan. But I doubt it will happen

Atlanta Ga: What about the US getting back the naval base at Cam Ran Bay.? Would this likely block China's expansion in the South China Sea.?

Michael O'Hanlon: We won't due it unless China gets a lot more aggressive. But if China does, Vietnam and the US may turn into military partners as you suggest

Alexandria, VA: Why would we sell Taiwan aircraft, subs and ships and not include the best we have to offer; i.e. Aegis-class destroyers. The Chinese don't care if we don't give them the top-shelf equipment.

Michael O'Hanlon: China cares a lot about the specifics of what we sell. So does Taiwan. Since we need to restrain both sides, while helping Taiwan defend itself, I believe the proposed arms sales package makes good sense

Washington, DC: Why do you think Taiwan has been pretty quiet so far in its public statements about the arms sale decision?

Michael O'Hanlon: they're probably waiting to get a sense of how the decision will play here first. They aren't delighted with the decision, but can't easily afford to anger the Bush administration, and they aren't too unhappy either. Basically it's probably pretty hard to figure out exactly what to say

Arlington, VA:
China has vehemently opposed the U.S. National Missile Defense plan, yet it continues to sell WMD to rogue states like North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Do you think the US could use its leverage on the Aegis sale to Taiwan to at least get China to agree to stop these weapons sales?

Michael O'Hanlon: Difficult to do, because what if China stops selling missiles to Iran but keeps building up missiles near Taiwan? Do we really not sell Aegis to Taiwan under those circumstances?

Tysons Corner VA: What effect do you think the arms sales will have on the fate of Gao Zhan, the American Univ. professor being held in China? Do you think China will use the Americans held as bargaining chips against the deal?

Michael O'Hanlon: China should have learned during the EP-3 standoff not to overplay its hand on the use of bargaining chips. If it starts playing these types of games, it will hurt its interests, and we'll be more apt not less apt to sell Taiwan arms.

Vienna, VA: How will the decision play out in Congress? Any thoughts on the pro-democratic forces vs. the pro-trade faction?

Michael O'Hanlon: Congress will support this move, because it strikes the right balance. Only a few hard-liners will object. It's not just a question of trade versus security; it's more a question of how to optimize security, and this package probably does that

seattle,wa: If the US no longer make diesel submarines, why should Taiwan buy them from US instead of from Germany or Holland directly? Must US make profits on everything?

Michael O'Hanlon: First, we can do at least some diesel submarine work. Second, I am not sure Germany and Holland want the political onus or military commitment of entering into that type of direct deal with Taipei. I wouldn't assume that the profit motive drives this. If other European countries wanted to sell directly, they could--witness the French Mirage sale back in the early 1990s

Dallas, TX: Preemptive strike may be considered 'defensive' measures too. In recent arm sales to Taiwan with low attitude guidance pod for F16, land attack capable Harpoon missile etc., Is US supporting that strategy? What is Taiwan's technology capability in short range SSM build up? What is your view on the credence of that strategy?

Michael O'Hanlon: I believe that Taiwan is considering a missile force but does not have much capability right now. You are of course right that countries can call almost any attack defensive if they want--but then again, they have to convince the rest of us they are right, and be convinced that retaliation from the attacked won't hurt them a great deal, before undertaking such a strike. I seriously doubt Taiwan would initiate a preemptive missile strike against China.

Boston, Mass.: Where does Jesse Helms fit into the China equation, now that there is a new President and a lot of recent turmoil in US-PRC relations?

Michael O'Hanlon: He remains a top voice for conservative thinking on the subject, but clearly did not carry the day on the actual decision

Burke, Virginia: Do you feel China will in any way retaliate for this Arm Sales decision?

Michael O'Hanlon: Thanks to everyone for writing. And as for the last question, I do not think China will directly retaliate. But I do worry about whether it will continue its missile buildup. if it does, we will "retaliate"--with more arms sales to Taiwan next year. Stay tuned! Best, Mike

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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