The return to American soil of the 24-member crew of the Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane may have eased tensions between the United States and China, but new confrontations loom. (This) week will see the start of bilateral talks on such prickly issues as return of the badly damaged plane and the U.S. determination to continue flights off China's coast. A more explosive issue lies ahead, with decisions due on future American arms sales to Taiwan. Even before the EP-3 incident, congressional conservatives were calling for major upgrades in the quality of weapons sold to Taiwan.
The arms sales are not a matter of if, but of how much. The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, passed by Congress following U.S. recognition of China, calls for providing Taiwan "such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability." The key words are self-defense. The consistent U.S. aim has been to assure that Taiwan keeps a qualitative arms balance with the mainland. As China has improved the sophistication of its weaponry, the United States has sold Taiwan more advanced equipment, like F-16 fighters.
Taiwan this year seeks a package that includes submarines and anti-submarine weapons and, most important, a ship-mounted missile defense system, to counter the missile buildup taking place in southeastern China. China's undeviating line, as one high official recently restated it, is that arms sales to Taiwan are "the most painful and destructive experience for the U.S.-China relationship." Such sentiments are unlikely to sway a Congress angered by the EP-3 incident and concerned that any U.S. failure to significantly augment Taiwan's defenses would be interpreted by China's military hard-liners as timidity.
President Bush has shown he can take a long view of the complex U.S.-China relationship, however heated the emotions of the moment may be. That sense of restraint should prevail as arms sales to Taiwan are weighed. U.S. policy seeks to maintain peace in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan's ability to defend itself against aggression buttresses the prospects for peace. The trick is not to arm Taiwan to a point where China can claim that its security is threatened.
Congress is free to vent its bitterness toward Beijing. But a new Taiwan arms deal can't be based on what might most rankle China. It must be based on what best serves America's long-term interests.
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