TAIPEI, Taiwan — It may be the "unsinkable aircraft carrier" off China's coast, but Taiwan needs to do a much better job of defending itself or risk being bullied by Beijing and sidelined by Washington, frustrated U.S. officials have warned.
Shortly after President Bush took office in 2001, his administration approved the sale of some of the most sophisticated weaponry ever extended to Taiwan, responding to long-standing criticism from Taipei that Washington wouldn't let it buy what it needed.
For the last several years, however, the arms package has been stymied in Taiwan by an opposition-led legislature that has blocked funding. On Tuesday, political opponents kept the bill off the legislative agenda for the 31st time.
A speech delivered in San Diego last month by Edward Ross, a senior Pentagon security cooperation official, provided the most public evidence of Washington's growing frustration.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Taiwan budget -- An Oct. 8 article in Section A said Taiwan's annual budget is $7.8 billion. That figure represents Taiwan's annual budget for defense.
"As the lone superpower, our interests are plentiful and our attention short," Ross told a U.S.-Taiwan Business Council meeting. "We cannot help defend you if you cannot defend yourself."
No one expects Taiwan to match China's much higher military spending, Ross added. What Washington does expect is a willingness to face head-on the growing Chinese security threat that is allowing Beijing to negotiate the future of cross-strait relations from a position of strength, he said.
In Taiwan, however, the issue is a political football, analysts said, with more than enough blame to go around and little evidence the impasse will end anytime soon.
Much of the finger-pointing is directed at Taiwan's opposition coalition, which has repeatedly blocked a vote on the huge special budget required to fund the arms package. Opposition legislators counter that many elements of the package on offer -- including submarines, missile systems and anti-submarine aircraft -- are outdated or ill-suited to Taiwan's defense.
"I'd like to see military issues kept above politics," said opposition legislator Nelson Ku of the People First Party. "But we don't have enough money to pay for such expensive systems. And even before we negotiate on price, we need to discuss performance. How can we know, for instance, which target is friend or foe?"
Ku, a former admiral and fleet commander, said that on several occasions during the 1970s and '80s, unidentified submarines had entered the Taiwan Strait. When Taiwan asked Washington whether the intruder was American, he said, the U.S. refused to comment.
Others argue that Taiwan should focus on improved ties with Beijing instead, which would reduce the need for military spending and blunt Chinese hostility.
China has repeatedly called on the U.S. not to sell weapons to Taiwan and this month warned the United States against providing Taipei with its own missile defense system.
Taiwan's ruling coalition is also to blame for the delay, analysts say, for structuring the arms package as a special budget, knowing how difficult it would be to pass something this large.
The arms package was originally $18.5 billion, pared to $14.5 billion and then $10.3 billion, as opposition mounted and some systems were dropped or delayed. Even the smallest figure, however, is well above the government's total annual $7.8-billion budget.
"It's an elephant," said Vice Defense Minister Michael M. Tsai, who favors funding the purchase through a combination of bonds and higher regular spending. "It's bigger than an elephant. It squeezes out the important budgets of Taiwan's other 30 agencies."
Analysts say the Americans aren't blameless either, for initially going along with the special budget idea despite warnings it would be problematic, given the pressures elected officials everywhere face.
"America loves democracy but hates democracies," said Derek Mitchell, a former Defense Department official and senior fellow with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They don't always do exactly what you want. It can be hard to deal with them."
Fueling the political logjam in Taiwan, some analysts say, is a highly partisan system that makes broad agreements difficult to achieve. This is compounded by frequent elections, giving politicians little breathing room before the gloves are on for the next round.
Nor does the U.S. arms package win many votes, add many jobs or spur the local economy.
"I'm against the arms purchase," said Wang Wei, a 26-year-old company manager in Taipei. "Of course this would upset the Americans, but that's the way they are when we don't buy things from them. I prefer we spend it on technology or local traffic systems."
Some also argue that Taiwan appears more interested in knowing it can have the latest hardware than actually acquiring it.
"It can be as much about 'Do you love us?' than that they want to procure" all the weapons systems, Mitchell said, an attitude that has prompted some in Washington to fret that the U.S. cares more about Taiwan's defense than the island does.