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Missile Defense Is Wrong Call on Taiwan

Asia: To include Taipei under such an umbrella antagonizes China, adds to regional tensions and doesn't serve U.S. interests.

May 03, 1999|VANESSA GUEST | Vanessa Guest is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York

Pakistan and India's tests of ballistic missiles in April should put the United States on alert for the onset of an arms race in Asia. Current talk about including Taiwan in a "theater missile defense" for Asia, before it even becomes reality, threatens to escalate this arms race. Missile defense for Taiwan would needlessly alienate China, aggravate regional tensions and is a serious foreign policy mistake.

Since its inception in 1994, the American-Japanese plan for advanced missile defense to protect American allies and troops in Asia has ignited opposition from China. Last winter, when Congress ordered the Pentagon to study inclusion of Taiwan in the defense umbrella, China was furious. The proposed deployment requires cooperation between the United States and Taiwan on satellites, effectively integrating U.S.-Taiwanese defense systems before a crisis starts. Rather than simply facing an expected threat from the American-Japanese alliance, China would be facing the threat of a fortified American-Taiwanese alliance.

For many in Congress, increasing defense of Taiwan serves a number of purposes: It is a signal of American resolve in the face of a rising militant China; it helps American defense contractors--who from 1990 to 1995 made $8.3 billion in sales to Taiwan (the second largest U.S. arms sales destination) and best of all, it obstructs the Clinton administration's efforts to improve Sino-U.S. relations.

A strengthened American-Taiwanese alliance increases the likelihood that the U.S. might enter a cross-strait conflict or that Taiwan might start one by seeking independence.

China is incensed, even though the proposed missile deployment is still in the talking stages. Soon after talks in March with former Defense Secretary William Perry, China's foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, gave an unusually hostile early warning to the media that China would take drastic action if Taiwan participates in the proposed program.

The time for forcing the Taiwan issue could not be less opportune. China is upset over the American-led bombing of Yugoslavia, which it views as a threatening precedent for illegal intervention in a country's sovereignty. With the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 and the return of Macao later this year, Beijing feels increasing pressure to show progress on reunification. Despite intermittent efforts at cross-strait dialogue, the political distance separating Taiwan from China has only grown.

Strong U.S. missile defense rhetoric exacerbates this tense situation. It plays into the hands of Chinese hard-liners seeking to get tough on Taiwan by forcing the reunification issue. It prevents the U.S. from acting as an objective intermediary. Cross-strait conflict may thus become more likely as a weakened China arms itself with the greatest dangers to world stability: nationalism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Worse still, the very threat against which missile defense hopes to guard--regional instability--may well be precipitated by the proposed deployment to Taiwan. The Chinese foreign ministry has said it is in talks with Moscow over a united opposition to the program. Russia, fearing that the U.S. may use missile defense programs as an excuse to either risk a nuclear exchange or reprise the much grander, more costly "star wars," may refuse to ratify the second strategic arms reduction treaty (START-II) or break with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Beijing might abandon its commitment to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and be less cooperative with the U.S. on weapons technology transfers with implications for security in South Asia and the Middle East.

Even if a missile defense is ready by 2005, it's still not the right defense for Taiwan. Taiwan already has missile defense, which while not as sophisticated as what the Clinton administration is planning to sell it, nonetheless remains the best U.S. protection that money can buy.

Trading certain political harm today for questionable technological and doubtful strategic benefit in 2005 is no bargain for the United States or the Asia-Pacific. Our allies in South Korea have already indicated their opposition.

The administration should change the fine print in our proposed missile defense deal to leave off Taiwan for the foreseeable future. The U.S. must not allow vested interests to hijack our long-term national interest. As MIT professor Thomas Christensen, argues, theater missile defense for Taiwan is simply the wrong system in the wrong hands at the wrong time.

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