Taiwan Opposition Leader Visiting U.S., Faced With Explaining Why His Party Opposes Arms Deal
By PETER ENAV
The Associated Press
TAIPEI, Taiwan - He marched with protesters carrying signs saying "Money to U.S., Debt to Taiwan" and other slogans opposing an American offer to sell cutting-edge weapons to this island to defend against a possible Chinese attack. Now a week later, Ma Ying-jeou the man many think will be Taiwan's next president is flying to the United States, where he'll have to explain why his Nationalist Party is blocking the $16 billion arms deal.
It won't be easy for the Harvard-educated Ma, who leaves Sunday on a six-day swing to New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, where he was expected to meet with congressional leaders and administration officials. His party has said it would propose a new weapons package, but it has yet to give any details.
For more than a year, Ma's party and its allies have used their slim legislative majority to reject the package an array of submarines, Patriot missiles and submarine-hunting planes out of concern it will force Taiwan into an arms race with China.
Last weekend, thousands of Taiwanese paraded in the capital, demonstrating against President Chen Shui-bian's tough policy on China. Ma popular for his good looks and clean image joined the march and was surrounded by people carrying signs protesting the U.S. weapons sale.
The failure to seal the arms deal has angered Taiwan's president, who says the weapons are necessary to help counter a decade-long Chinese military buildup. Beijing has long claimed that self-ruled Taiwan belongs to its territory and has threatened to use force to take over the island of 23 million people. The two sides split in 1949 amid civil war.
Taiwan's foot-dragging on the weapons has exasperated Washington, where concern for the island's security meshes with the interests of powerful defense contractors coveting its business.
The U.S. has long promised to provide Taiwan with weapons needed to defend against a Chinese attack. Washington has also hinted it would join the war if China invades. But some have recently started wondering if American blood should be spilled for Taiwan if the island isn't serious about its own defense.
This month, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage underscored U.S. displeasure over the Taiwanese opposition's stance on the weapons deal when he met Nationalist legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng in Taipei.
"It is important that Taiwan shows seriousness in taking care of its own defense," Armitage said.
The Nationalists insist they are not the problem on the weapons package. They say they favor an alternative version, as long as it does not force the island into a no-win arms race with Beijing.
"Our position is clear," said Nationalist Party spokeswoman Chen Li-wen. "We are fully committed to Taiwan getting the means to defend itself."
But the Nationalists haven't come up with an alternative plan, despite repeated promises to do so. This has raised suspicions that some elements in the Nationalist camp are letting pro-China tendencies dictate their stance.
In contrast to the president's party, the Nationalists favor eventual union with the mainland, though without putting a timeframe on it. An ally, the People First Party, is even more enthusiastic about a China merger.
"Of course there are people in the Nationalist Party who think that because the party can have good relations across the strait, there's no reason to buy all these weapons," said Emile Sheng, a political scientist at Taipei's Soochow University.
Sheng said Ma would like to break the logjam on the weapons package but may be constrained by the pro-China members of his opposition coalition, especially in the PFP.
"The PFP are really hawkish on the issue," he said.
On a recent visit to Taipei, Rep. Rob Simmons, R-Conn., said time was running out on the Taiwan weapons deal.
"The administration is clear on the arms sale," said Simmons, whose district includes one of four companies bidding to build submarines for Taiwan. "But in three years, the policy could change because the administration will leave ... and we don't know the next administration's position."