David Isenberg writes on the visit of Taiwan legislators to the US to scout the submarine purchase:

The latest wrinkle in the long-running tale of US arms sales to Taiwan occurred last week when seven Taiwanese lawmakers from four different parties arrived in the United States on an 11-day visit to conduct a feasibility study for a submarine-procurement deal.

According to lawmaker Liao Wan-ju of the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), the purpose of the visit, which began last Tuesday, is to learn about the production capacity of US submarine manufacturers and Washington’s attitude toward the deal.

Other members of the group are KMT legislators Shuai Hua-ming and Su Chi, Fu Kun-chi of the opposition People First Party, Ho Ming-hao of the opposition Taiwan Solidarity Union, and Chang Hua-kuan and Shen Fa-hui of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Because of media criticism and partisan disputes in Taiwan over the trip, Vice Defense Minister Ko Cheng-heng canceled a plan to join the group, and the duration and itinerary of the journey were both curtailed. According to an original itinerary revealed by Taiwan’s United Daily News in mid-July, the trip will take the lawmakers to the cities of Washington, Boston and Los Angeles and the state of Hawaii, and will include visits to defense contractors General Electric, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin.

And, in response to media criticism that the trip is a waste of taxpayers’ money, the sources said the legislators will have to foot part of their travel expenses out of their own pockets.

The dispute stems from an accusation by Legislator Lin Yu-fang, who claimed that the Defense Ministry was trying to “buy” lawmakers’ support for its plan to acquire eight US-built submarines by offering them free trips to the United States. Lin claimed that many of the lawmakers in the delegation do not even sit on the legislature’s Committee for Defense Affairs, and that the organizers altered the itinerary to accommodate some lawmakers’ requests for private trips during the visit.

The Ministry of National Defense has wanted the submarines since 2004, but a budget bill for the deal has been bogged down in the opposition-controlled legislature ever since.

Actually, the Ministry has wanted submarines since the early 1980s. Note that Isenberg, like every other US commentator on the subject except conservative analyst John Tkacik, does not mention that the US has played an important role in triggering and prolonging the arms purchase debacle, by jacking up the price of the submarines, and by refusing to give Taiwan any co-production.

Isenberg discusses Tkacik’s recent article in DefenseNews:

In a further complication, according to a commentary by an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, the US State Department is actively blocking the sale from going through to warn President Chen Shui-bian against holding a referendum on Taiwan’s entry into the United Nations, one of Washington’s leading commentators on Taiwanese affairs said.

Writing in the latest issue of Defense News, the analyst, John Tkacik, said the State Department had told the Pentagon that it opposed the sale of P-3C Orion submarine-hunter aircraft and advanced PAC-2 anti-ballistic-missile batteries, which the Legislative Yuan agreed to fund in June.

Tkacik’s full essay makes several interesting points:

Taiwan’s letters of request (LoRs) are at the Pentagon. As a bonus, Taiwan’s lawmakers approved start-up funding for 66 new F-16C/D fighter jets to replace aging F-5s. The fighter replacement program would be about $3.5 billion. Pentagon officials (not to mention defense contractors) were ecstatic. But not the State Department.

State Department officers now tell the Pentagon they don’t want the package to move. They say they fear approving the package might “embolden” Taiwan’s president to move ahead with a local referendum on Taiwan’s entry into the United Nations.

(It is an inconvenient truth, however, that public pressure for the “referendum” convinced even Taiwan’s opposition parties that continuing to block defense funds would lose them votes in next January’s election, so delaying the Taiwan defense package isn’t likely to “embolden” Taiwan’s polity any more than it already is).

Internally, State Department officials acknowledge that the eagerness of Christopher Hill, assistant secretary of state, to get something concrete out of his North Korean denuclearization efforts means he will not entertain any policy decision that might anger Beijing. And Taiwan weapon sales are a sure-fire way for the State Department to get an agitated visit from the Chinese ambassador.

State fears….an agitated visit from the Chinese ambassador. Has Beijing acquired control over US Taiwan policy? You be the judge. Apparently State also believes that if Taiwan is weak there won’t be a conflict, a huge error. Finally, State thinks that Taiwan will be “emboldened” by military sales. To do what? Have more democracy? Note that we have a coalition of more than 20 pro-Taiwan groups pushing the referendums and wanting to overturn the referendum law, and that this referendum move is taking place without any reference to the military situation. The public wants to enter the UN. If State really thinks that the referendum is going to cause a problem, it needs to pull its head out and make sure that Taipei is adequately armed to protect itself — because the referendum isn’t going to be stopped. The DPP can’t call it off now, not without taking a hit in the polls. I know its insane to call for diplomats to recognize reality, especially in the Taiwan case, but perhaps State needs to adjust its thinking to the situation on the ground….and, as always, observe the unbalanced State Department view: arms sales embolden Taipei — but failure to sell arms doesn’t embolden Beijing. Once again, we have that lurking Beijing-think, where democracy is a problem, but weapons buildups in China are a force for stability.

Tkacik notes that the State Department also objected to previous military sales…

And in March, the Bush administration approved a $400 million contract for Taiwan air-to-air missiles — seemingly pushed by the Pentagon — over State Department objections, as a demonstration of American anger at China’s anti-satellite weapon test in January.

Tkacik too understands that Beijing has acquired control over US and its Asian policy:

But if the Bush administration is to avoid giving Beijing a veto over America’s strategic relationships in Asia (like Taiwan, Japan is facing similar resistance from the State Department in its request for the F-22 fighter), it must rebuild its military ties with key Asian allies. Notifying Congress of the Taiwan P-3 Orion and PAC-2 GEM missile defense batteries — and moving on Taipei’s request for more F-16s — would be a start.

State’s foul-up in the Japanese case is also having profound negative ramifications: Japan is now mulling constructing its own advanced fighter aircraft. At a time when we most need to enrich and expand our relationships in Asia, State is undermining them.And you thought it was just Taiwan! (according to Defense News, the US Pacific Command also opposes the sale, and Congress has passed a law against selling the F-22).

Tkacik observes:

“The key,” one anonymous administration official told me, “is to move the existing [Taiwan] cases, we [must] now get them notified to the Hill; the PRC is going to scream, but then they always scream.”

The trick, he said, is to “get everybody back into the habit of approving Taiwan arms sales.” Once that’s done, he observed, “then we can move with the F-16s … but people in Taiwan know that’s the dynamic … the F-16 money isn’t going to be available after September.”

Taiwan’s pro-China politicians cleverly stipulated the F-16 money would be canceled after Oct. 1 if the U.S. failed to respond.

“Pro-China politicians” — I could kiss this man. Meanwhile he notes that State’s policy might even be illegal:

A package of 66 new F-16C/Ds for Taiwan, worth about $4 billion, is absolutely essential to keeping Taiwan’s Air Force credible in the Strait. Taiwan’s 250 aging F-5Es are at the end of their 25-year service lives and must be replaced. Holding up their approval because of anxieties about China is — arguably — illegal.

In the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, Congress specifically mandated that the “President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan.” There is no room for the administration to debate the definitions of the words “shall” or “solely.” “Shall” means it must be done, and “solely” means the administration may not, under any circumstances, consider China’s reactions to the sale of any given defense package to Taiwan.

At the moment, US State Department policy will cause a war in the Taiwan Strait because it inherently concedes Beijing’s position that Taiwan is part of China, thus giving it the legal and even moral right to invade Taiwan — and it invites Beijing to move by disarming Taiwan. Perhaps State is playing some kind of double bluff (”if we weaken Taiwan they won’t invade, since it will appear Taiwan will fall into its lap”), but from here in Taiwan, the Ship of State badly needs a course correction.

UPDATE: Just out — several news organizations are reporting as of this morning that Washington is going to hold up the F-16 purchase.