TAIPEI, Taiwan – Taiwan's military is desperately trying to whip up public support for a plan to spend billions on a huge U.S. weapons deal it says is essential to fending off a Chinese attack.
The latest sales pitch: The $18 billion price tag really isn't as big as it seems. The island could save up enough money for the arms if everyone cut back on drinking milky bubble tea (search) — that popular icy beverage with chewy tapioca sucked up with a fat straw — over the next 15 years.
The government has no intention of trying to pay for the weapons by taking people's tea money; it's just a clever image meant to make that $18 billion look less daunting.
The analogy, made by toothy cartoon characters, is part of a new colorful poster circulated by the military that shows P-3C Orion (search) submarine-hunting planes cruising blue skies, Patriot missiles blasting off with a plume of white smoke and diesel-electric subs cutting through choppy seas.
These are the weapons the government says are crucial to maintaining the balance of military power in the 100-mile Taiwan Strait (search) — one of the world's most dangerous potential flash points. A war could quickly draw in America, Taiwan's bodyguard since the island about the size of Maryland or the Netherlands split from China five decades ago.
"Fearing war won't avoid or stop a war. The best way to avoid a war is to be prepared for a war," President Chen Shui-bian (search) said recently in a speech to model soldiers.
But a growing and increasingly vocal group of scholars, lawmakers and retired officers is challenging the deal — which comes up for a vote in the legislature next month. They say the weapons are too expensive and will only fuel an arms race that will bankrupt the island — the world's 15th biggest trading power.
"The Cold War ended with the Soviet Union collapsing because of an arms race," said Fu Ying-chuan, a retired major general who joined 156 former officers who signed a petition against the arms deal.
The critics plan to hold a protest march Saturday in the capital, Taipei. They appear to have wide support: Recent polls indicate most Taiwanese think the deal is too costly.
Enter the government's bubble tea analogy, which says Taiwan could raise the money if everyone had one less cup of the drink each week over 15 years. It not only makes light of the $18 billion pricetag, it does so with an example intended to resonate with working-class Taiwanese who favor the drinks sold on most street corners.
The United States is the only nation that now sells the Taiwanese advanced weapons. France has sold them jet fighters and the Netherlands provided submarines. But the deals infuriated China, and the Europeans have shied away from other deals for fear of angering Beijing and being shut out of the booming Chinese market.
For years, the Taiwanese pressed the United States to sell the island submarines. But the Americans balked because Washington limited sales to defensive weapons. Subs could be offensive.
But Washington shocked many and infuriated China in 2001 when newly elected President Bush agreed to sell Taiwan eight diesel-electric submarines, 12 P-3C sub-killer planes and four Kidd-class destroyers — the biggest arms deal with Taiwan in years.
It was one of the first major foreign policy decisions Bush made, and it came when much of the talk wasn't about terrorists but about how China was the most likely longterm threat to American power.
Now that Washington is willing to sell the long-desired submarines, the Taiwanese might damage U.S. relations by turning them down, said Andy Chang, professor at the Institute of China Studies at Tamkang University near Taipei.
Already, some U.S. officials have been grumbling about how Taiwan (search) is hoping America will shoulder most of its defensive burden.
"If Taiwan wants major changes to the list, the basis for Taiwan-U.S. relations could suffer a shock, with the United States seeing the island as unreliable," Chang said.
Lin Wen-cheng of the Taiwan Democracy Foundation (search) added, "The United States will wonder whether Taiwan has the will to defend itself, whether it is prepared to pay for its defense itself."
Bubble tea vendors, meanwhile, have different ideas about how to pay for the weapons.
"We should drink less Coca Cola," said Huang Kuo-shu, a city councilor in the central city of Taichung. "That makes more sense."