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US Arms Package for Taiwan Remains in Limbo

A political logjam in Taiwan is delaying a decision on the purchase of an $11 billion package of weaponry offered by the United States. The delay is causing concern in Taiwan and Washington about the island's defense policy.

Members of Taiwan's military march in a parade commemorating the 1911 revolution that ended 268 years of Qing Dynasty rule over China.

The predecessors of these soldiers fled to Taiwan in 1949 when the Communist Party took power in mainland China. Since then, the island has been self-governed, neither under Beijing's control nor a formally independent state.

But while the island's troops march in unity, its politicians are deeply divided over purchase of a new arms package from the United States.

Beijing considers the island part of its territory, and has threatened to attack if Taiwan's leaders move toward formal independence. The United States has traditionally been Taiwan's main supplier of arms.

Four years ago, the United States offered to sell Taipei a package of advanced weapons.

The package, with a price tag of $11 billion dollars, includes a Patriot anti-missile system, eight diesel submarines and 12 anti-submarine aircraft. However, Taiwan's legislative opposition, led by the Kuomintang or KMT, has blocked consideration of the deal more than 30 times.

One reason for the opposition, says Ger Yeong-kuang, a National Taiwan University political science professor, is that some politicians think Washington is asking for more than the weapons are worth. KMT politicians argue that much of the package is older, surplus weaponry that the United States is finding difficult to unload elsewhere.

"The problem is, some legislators argue that the same weapons, for example, submarines, we (would) purchase from the U.S. with two times or three times higher price than the other countries purchase from the U.S," he explained.

Some also question why Taiwan should spend so much on weapons at a time when the island's economy is weak, and there are demands for the government to spend on social welfare.

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian has called the opposition to the arms package "irrational," saying the weapons are essential to protect against China, and the purchase is needed to protect the island's close relationship with Washington.

But the president, who is unpopular and ineligible for re-election after 2008, fights an uphill struggle.

In his frustration, he has restructured the deal into a special budget - a move the KMT calls illegal.

KMT spokeswoman Cheng Li-wen says the opposition has to weigh its concern about U.S.-Taiwan relations against making sure President Chen and his Democratic People's Party follow the law.

"Yes, it worries us," she admitted. "Our relationship with the U.S. is crucial and the U.S. government's attitude toward Taiwan on cross-Strait policy is too important for us. But the budget was raised by the ruling government through an illegal process."

The KMT, which lost power five years ago, has traditionally opposed the mainland's communist government. In recent years, however, it has advocated closer ties with Beijing, countering President Chen's leanings toward Taiwan independence.

The impasse over the arms purchase has frustrated Taiwan's backers in Washington. Concern was first raised by the 151 members of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus in a letter last May. The letter urged the Taiwan opposition to reconsider the package in light of "concerns in the United States about Taiwan's ability to defend itself against potential aggression."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other defense officials also have voiced displeasure over the delayed deal.

In a speech in San Diego last month, with Taiwan's vice defense minister in the audience, a Pentagon official warned that the United States cannot help defend the island if Taiwan cannot defend itself.

Lin Cheng-yi, a research fellow at the Academia Sinica, worries about what would happen if politicians in either Taipei or Washington brought U.S. arms sales to Taiwan to a halt.

"Taiwan will become defenseless, and then an early unification might become a possibility," he said. " So I could argue that according to the Taiwan Relations Act, it is the legal obligation for the U.S. government to provide Taiwan with defensive arms so that Taiwan can have the sufficient self-defense capability."

Taiwan Vice President Annette Lu tells VOA that one answer to the debate is out of Taipei's control. She says the rest of the world needs to work to contain China's military growth.

"So the first priority (is) to urge the whole world - those who love peace - to begin to stop communist China from expanding their military hegemony," she said. "It's not only a hegemony against Taiwan, it's going to be a terrible threat toward (the) Asia region and even to the world."

Many political analysts here expect a compromise will eventually be reached. They predict, however, that to get it approved by the legislature, President Chen will drop the Patriot anti-missile system, aimed at defending against Chinese missiles, from the final package.