The Nelson Report, the widely-circulated Washington insider report, recently wrote:

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Taiwan arms…last week’s Heritage speech by PACOM’s Adm. Tim Keating continues to generate attention in Asia, given his admission of a US “arms sale freeze” in order not to risk disruption of the currently improved China-Taiwan situation.

But we were wrong in reporting that Keating explicitly said he “consults” with China on the arms sale question. We misheard something and did not double-check the transcript until a couple of Loyal Readers said they couldn’t find any mention of consultation, per se.

TAIWAN ARMS…as noted in the Summary, we owe PACOM Adm. Tim Keating an apology for taking what he did say about Taiwan arms, and mistakenly thinking he was also explicitly saying he consults with China about Taiwan arms.

We were listening to his remarks at Heritage last Wednesday at about 400 miles an hour, and a private email seemed to confirm what we thought we heard, which, HAD he explicitly said it, would seem to be in violation of the spirit, if not also the letter, of the Taiwan Relations Act.

Careful reading of the transcript by faithful Loyal Readers has confirmed that we were wrong…he didn’t say it. He didn’t even use the word “freeze” still being attributed to him, as per today’s Wall Street Journal story, which is a useful summary of the current situation [MT: this piece is by the excellent Ting-yi Tsai, now the Wall Street Journal correspondent here]:

TAIPEI — The White House appears increasingly unlikely to proceed with a planned $11 billion weapons sale to Taiwan, a decision that critics say could alter the strategic balance between the island and China and that could leave a thorny issue for the next U.S. president.

The weapons package — which includes antimissile systems sold by Raytheon Co. and helicopters from United Technologies Corp. and Boeing Co. — originated with an offer by U.S. President George W. Bush just months after he took office in 2001. The arms offer was the biggest for Taiwan in at least a decade, but political infighting on the island blocked allocation of funds until last December, when its legislature finally approved funding.

Since then, however, the Bush administration has yet to send formal requests to Congress that are needed for such sales, raising questions about the deal’s prospects.

Then, in remarks Wednesday, the top U.S. military official in the Pacific effectively acknowledged that the Bush administration has frozen arms sales to Taiwan, at least temporarily. Adm. Timothy Keating said U.S. analysis “indicates there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this moment, arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we’re talking about.”

Some proponents of the sale are now worried it won’t happen before Mr. Bush finishes his term in January. “It seems reasonably clear that the [Bush] administration has decided not to sell arms to Taiwan,” says Harvey Feldman, a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

The U.S. is obligated to provide Taiwan with “arms of a defensive character” under the Taiwan Relations Act, passed in 1979 to govern relations with the island after the U.S. severed formal ties with it and recognized Beijing. China’s government, which claims Taiwan as part of its rightful territory, has long demanded that the U.S. cease all weapons sales to the island.

The delay comes as relations are improving between Taiwan and China under new Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, after years of tension. Officials from the Ma administration and his Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang, say the president remains determined to acquire the weapons that Taiwan needs.

Critics say Mr. Ma isn’t doing enough to push for the arms package. They point out that the Kuomintang fought budgetary allocation for the weapons for years when it was the opposition party.

Observers suggest there may be less urgency in Taiwan to push for such a sale as relations with China evolve and that a deal would strain any tentative overtures. Two weeks ago the two countries began the first regularly scheduled nonstop flights between them in nearly 60 years. The two sides also agreed to a sharp rise in the number of Chinese tourists allowed to go to Taiwan.

Lawrence Walker, a spokesman for the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei, said the U.S.’s position on arms sales to Taiwan remains unchanged.

Some analysts say Mr. Bush may only be delaying the sale until after he travels to China next month for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. “The best chance [for the sales] is right after the Olympics,” said Randall Schriver, a former senior Asia official at the State Department under Mr. Bush.

The $11 billion package includes Boeing Apache Longbow attack helicopters, Sikorsky Black Hawk helicopters, Raytheon Patriot PAC-3 air-defense batteries, and designs for diesel electric submarines. For those sales to go through, the State Department must first issue formal “notifications” to Congress, but it hasn’t done so.

Unless the U.S. completes legislative approval of the sales by the end of September, the package might have to be reviewed again next summer by the next administration. In addition, Taiwan’s allocation for the weapons expires at the end of this year, meaning the legislature would have to approve it again.

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Now, on the point of a “freeze”, whether or not “consulted” about…the then-necessary amendment to the TRA (inserted back in 1970 over the figurative dead-bodies of the State Department and White House) was a major part of the “price” paid to Congress by the Carter Administration for “normalization” with the PRC.

Since then, as relations between Beijing, Taipei, and Washington, in all of their combinations, have become more complex, a normal human being can be forgiven for thinking that it’s plain common sense that the US and China would “consult”, in some fashion, before the US decided to introduce sophisticated new armaments into the Cross-Strait equation.

Similarly, the US has complained, for years, to Beijing about its policy of a massive conventional missile build-up along the Strait, although pro-Taiwan critics of the Clinton and Bush administrations would not agree the “complaints” have had teeth.[MT: the issue was two-fold. Not only were the complaints not as loud as they could have been and were not backed by action, the US also complained even more loudly about Chen Shui-bian's essentially harmless political moves. For example, it made a much greater fuss about the harmless NUC shutdown than any noise it made about China's military.]

In any event, as Adm. Keating made abundantly clear, the US policy for now is not for us to introduce potentially de-stabilizing arms into the region…so long as current trends continue.[MT: that is not quite correct. The US policy is to prevent all arms from entering Taiwan, des-stabilizing or not. Previously it had only been to prevent offensive weapons from reaching Taiwan. Nelson's formulation argues essentially that any weapons are destabilizing.]

The really difficult part of this policy is measuring the sometimes very fine line between building Taiwan’s confidence that it can peacefully negotiate its future with China, vs undermining Taiwan’s ability to do so by holding back sales, despite improvements by the PLA.

The equation is further complicated by the US military role, sometimes implied, sometimes directly stated, in providing a security umbrella under which both Beijing and Taipei can more productively interact.

These are interlocking equations, and during the Bush Administrations’ unhappy experience with the DPP government of President Chen, domestic political contradictions on Taiwan often made calculating the right balance increasingly difficult.

Hopes are high that the Ma KMT government will make the various computations easier for all involved…but that’s a calculation which still rests very much on decisions in Beijing, and deployments of and by the PLA.

At a certain point, the question of purely the military balance, if one can separate that from strategic intent and geo politics, may “un-freeze” the US arms sale package on the table since 2001.

Next time Adm. Keating talks about it, we promise to listen better.

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