WASHINGTON – On April 1, a Chinese pilot, pursuant to the Chinese government policy of harassing U.S. surveillance planes, knocked an American EP-3 from the sky. The Chinese government then held the American aircrew hostage for 11 days, and extorted a letter of apology from the Bush administration.
Will China now pay a price? Some of our conservative friends who supported the Bush administration's handling of this matter have expressed confidence that the answer is yes. We hope they're right.
For the moment, it's easier to list the areas where China will not pay a price.
Trade? Forget it. The administration opposes any linkage between trade and other aspects of Chinese behavior, and brave congressional talk about voting against China's most-favored-nation status when it comes up for renewal this year has melted away since the return of the American crew.
Human rights? The U.N. resolution calling for a review of China's human rights record was voted down last week, with no greater U.S. success in persuading other nations to join with us than in previous years. President Bush's trip to Beijing this fall? So far, it's going ahead as scheduled.
The 2008 Olympics? We have already begun hearing from the China engagers that giving Beijing the Olympics is good idea because it will encourage better behavior by Chinese leaders both at home and abroad — just like the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
Then there is the matter of American military activities in the South China Sea. During and immediately after the hostage crisis, we heard a lot of bold talk about how the United States would not be deterred from continuing to fly its surveillance planes over the South China Sea and that the flights would resume immediately. There was even a recommendation from within the military to send the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk into the South China Sea as a show of resolve.
But the administration has apparently decided to proceed more cautiously. As this magazine goes to press, surveillance flights off China's coast remain on hold. If and when they do resume, Pentagon officials suggest, U.S. planes will stay out of the South China Sea for a while, to give the Chinese some breathing room and to avoid provoking Beijing.
Far from paying a price, therefore, China has so far won a small victory. Before the crisis, American surveillance planes were routinely flying in international waters over the South China Sea. Today they aren't. It's that simple. The Kitty Hawk, meanwhile, is steaming away from China.
So what's left? The pending decision on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Bush administration officials have said that the recent crisis with China should not and will not affect the president's decision on what arms to sell Taiwan. That would be fine with us. Because selling our democratic friends in Taiwan only what they need to defend themselves against China would by itself be a significant step toward repairing the damage done to the U.S. position in East Asia this month.
What does Taiwan need? It needs new submarines. It needs new destroyers. It needs new missiles for its jet fighters. And Taiwan needs the U.S. Navy's Aegis battle management system. An honest decision on weapons sales, based solely on an objective assessment of what Taiwan needs, would provide Taiwan all of these.
You don't have to take our word for it. All you have to do is ask the Pentagon. Late last year officers from the U.S. Pacific fleet reviewed Taiwan's defense needs and came to these conclusions.
China, which in recent years has purchased advanced Soviet-made destroyers and submarines, now threatens to overwhelm Taiwan's outmoded naval arsenal. China's sub fleet outnumbers Taiwan's 65-4 (and two of Taiwan's subs are World War II-era Guppies). The Pentagon study concluded that Taiwan badly needs a new fleet of submarines and P-3 aircraft to hunt for subs and conduct patrols. Any weapons package that does not contain submarines and P-3s will deal a fundamental blow to Taiwan's ability to defend itself in the event of a Chinese naval blockade or other form of naval attack.
The Pentagon study also concluded that Taiwan needs the Aegis system. China, in addition to building up its naval and submarine force, is rapidly improving the quality of its air force, acquiring large numbers of Russian fighters and fighter-bombers. Unless Taiwan improves its air defenses, the Pentagon found, "the balance of air power ... could begin to shift in China's favor."
Meanwhile, China is engaged in a massive build-up of its missile forces — both supersonic anti-ship missiles and ballistic missiles. China now has 300 short-range ballistic missiles targeted on Taiwan and is adding 50 new missiles every year. Chinese strategy is clear: They hope to build a missile force capable of dealing a paralyzing blow against Taiwan — long before American forces could arrive on the scene.
The Aegis system, the Pentagon review concluded, offers the best and, indeed, the only answer to this panoply of missile and air threats. The Aegis radar can, in all kinds of weather, track more than 100 targets, and direct ship-fired missiles at them. It could also serve in the future as a platform for a theater missile defense system.
A decision to go ahead with the Aegis sale now would represent a serious and long-term U.S. commitment to Taiwan's ability to defend itself. The Aegis won't be ready for delivery for several years. In the meantime, selling Taiwan several Kidd-class destroyers will serve as a stopgap — but not as a substitute for Aegis.
The Pentagon study was conducted long before the recent collision over the South China Sea. Indeed, the review began under the Clinton administration. Its conclusions aren't Democratic or Republican, conservative or liberal, hawkish or dovish. The Pentagon report represents the best judgment of American military professionals. It is the closest thing we have to an objective assessment of what Taiwan needs to defend itself against China.
That makes the choice for President Bush fairly straightforward.
But China has warned that the sale of Aegis to Taiwan will lead to a rupture in Sino-American relations. And according to press reports, top administration officials are recommending that the president defer the sale of Aegis. The president should overrule these advisers and follow the recommendations outlined in the Pentagon study. Otherwise, Taiwan will be the one paying the price for Beijing's aggressive behavior.