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Ancients to Taiwan: Be Armed to the Teeth

April 23, 2001|JAMES HOLMES | James Holmes, a former professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, is a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

With the EP-3 spy plane controversy more or less settled, the focus of relations between the U.S. and China has shifted back to the pressing question of what weaponry, if any, the Bush administration should sell to the beleaguered government of Taiwan. The administration is expected to unveil a package of arms sales this week.

The prospect of renewed arms sales to Taiwan has fueled heated debate in both countries. Chinese officials have protested stridently against the sale of arms that could neutralize their swelling inventory of advanced aircraft and ballistic missiles. On this side of the Pacific, critics have predicted that sales of high-tech U.S. arms will prompt Beijing to accelerate its arms buildup.

Yet the principles underlying this debate are more basic than the psychology of arms races or the intricacies of shooting down ballistic missiles. The question is really a moral one: Is peace achieved through military power?

The answer is: It depends on the goals for which power is used. We can look to antiquity for help with this puzzle. In his classic "History of the Peloponnesian War," which recounts the war between Athens and Sparta, the historian Thucydides observed darkly that the strong do as they will in world affairs, while "the weak suffer what they must" when their interests collide with those of the strong. "Questions of justice," consequently, "arise only between equals."

In other words, you'd better arm yourself if you expect fair treatment from powerful neighbors.

The destruction of Melos, a Greek city-state, at the hands of Athens, one of the superpowers of the day, prodded Thucydides to articulate this axiom of international politics. An Athenian delegation had warned inhabitants of the strategically located island that they would face dire consequences if they refused to join Athens in its decades-long war against Sparta and the Peloponnesian League.

When Melian leaders balked--but lacked the wherewithal to defend themselves--the Athenians, true to their word, summarily put the male population to death and enslaved the women and children. For Thucydides, a moralist as well as an astute historian, the butchery dramatized the tragic consequences when a nation lacks the armed strength to uphold an assertive diplomatic posture.

Like it or not, effective diplomacy rests on a foundation of hard power--now as in classical Greece. You simply can't negotiate an equitable agreement when the other party has the armed might and the will to forcibly impose a settlement.

Thucydides' injunction against military infirmity applies to the present-day standoff in the Taiwan Strait, where military parity between the People's Republic of China and the island of Taiwan--the bedrock of political equality--is swiftly eroding in favor of China.

And Taiwan has a compelling moral claim to U.S. help. It is just for the weak to arm in order to resist subjugation by the strong. Spelled out explicitly in Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, the right to self-defense is one of the most hallowed tenets of international law. Conversely, it is unjust for the strong to arm for military conquest of a weaker neighbor.

In order to decide whether arms sales to Taipei are worthwhile, then, simply ask why each side wants a powerful arsenal. The decision to sell arms flows directly from this question of right and wrong.

Fortunately, this is an easy call. China has openly vowed to settle the Taiwan question by building up military forces sufficient either to intimidate the island into submission--in the best case, from its vantage point--or, failing that, to crush the Taiwanese military, throttle the island's economy and compel reunification before the U.S. Navy can intervene.

A thriving democracy, Taipei wants to withstand mounting Chinese pressure and intends to negotiate reunification in its own time and on its own terms. Yet Taiwanese leaders cannot negotiate as equals if they know they must either cave in to Beijing's demands or face economic and military ruin. That will be the eventual outcome if China is allowed to continue its one-sided arms race unchecked.

Only a powerful Taiwanese military can dissuade the People's Republic from settling the issue by coercion rather than by peaceful means. And only U.S. weaponry can provide the measure of security needed to underwrite a diplomatic settlement that takes into account the interests of both sides.

In the end, it boils down to a simple choice. The U.S. can either sell Taiwan the arms it needs to negotiate with confidence, or it can stand aside and abandon a friend to the tender mercies of Beijing. Let's not condemn the Taiwanese to become the modern counterparts of the Melians.

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