Arms purchase still bogged down

TAICHUNG, Taiwan, The China Post Staff

The future of a proposed arms purchase worth billions of U.S. dollars, said by government officials to be vital for Taiwan’s defense, remained bogged down in political controversies yesterday, as China renewed calls to attack the island if it moved towards independence. Defense Minister Lee Jye urged opposition politicians to authorize the NT$610.8 billion arms deal in the Legislature, saying it was pointless for him to act as defense minister if the purchase did not take place. Lee paid courtesy calls on KMT legislator Lu Hsiu-yan and TSU legislator Ho Ming-hao, to drum up support for the purchase, which Lee says is vital for maintaining the military equilibrium in the Taiwan Strait, ahead of a special all-day legislative session to deliberate the proposed purchase. “No one should drop this,” Lee told Lu.

“If this arms purchase is not passed by the Legislature, there is no point to my acting as defense minister and I wouldn’t want to do it,” he said.

The defense minister has said the package of anti-missile systems, planes and submarines from the United States is vital for Taiwan to counter China’s escalating military threat.

He mentioned the military’s relief efforts in the wake of Typhoon Mindulle when talking to the legislators.

“The military sees this disaster relief as one of its fundamental duties,” Lee said. “A future war is a similar disaster.” The defense minister said the weapons in the package were top-grade and currently used by the U.S. military in the front line of war. “In the past Taiwan wanted to buy these kinds of defensive weapons and the U.S. would not sell them. “Now the U.S. is looking at China’s military defenses, and has no option but to sell them to us,” Lee said. Opposition politicians continued to attack the price of the package and other details, after comments made by President Chen Shui-bian on Thursday antagonized them.

President Chen Shui-bian made comments on that day to the effect that the proposed NT$610.8 billion arms deal would not have been sent to the Legislature if no personnel changes took place after his May 20 inaugural speech. These comments were taken by opposition politicians to be an attack on the former defense minister Tang Yiau-min, who offered to resign on the grounds of ill health around the time of the presidential election.

Tang’s offer to resign was refused and he was retained by Premier Yu Shyi-kun until the time of the presidential inauguration, but was hospitalized for much of the final months of his administration.

The KMT’s Lu told reporters yesterday that she obtained information revealing Tang did not approve of the billion-dollar arms package, as he believed it was overpriced and did not suit Taiwan’s defense needs.

Chen tried to hurry Tang along to prepare the bill authorizing the purchase before the March 20 presidential election so it could be sent to the Legislature, but Tang insisted on sticking to procedures and refused to use some of its technology. As a result, Chen was angry with Tang, and canceled all scheduled talks with him, with no contact between the two for three months, Lu claimed.

Lee strongly denied this and urged politicians not to politicize the proposed arms deal.

“All ministers have their own plans for policies. Plans for the purchase were completed under Tang’s administration,” Lee said. PFP legislator Lin Yu-fang also took issue with President Chen’s Thursday comments that the U.S. proposed the special deal in 2001 and Taiwan had dragged its feet on it for three years.

“This is not in accordance with the facts,” said Lin, who was part of the legislative delegation to visit Washington to discuss the deal. Lin said the U.S. had only given Taiwan a price quotation for some of the military systems early last year. He also said some of the anti-submarine fighters were upgraded by the U.S. in February this year. Lin praised Tang for sticking to procedures, saying the current DPP administration and U.S. were currently trying to push the deal through too rapidly. PFP legislators Liu Wen-hsiung and Chin Hui-chu also demanded Chen give an explanation about his treatment of Tang.

Opposition politicians said Lee had been promoted to defense minister in the Cabinet reshuffle after Chen’s re-election as he was the only one who approved of the arms purchase.

Lee also denied this, saying it had never been mentioned to him when Chen first appointed him.

Meanwhile a Chinese government official warned that it was very likely there would be a clash between Taiwan and China if Chen created a new Constitution that touched on issues of the island’s sovereignty. The Chinese government’s director of its Taiwan Affairs Office Wang Zaixi said if Taiwan continued to challenge Beijing’s “One China principle”, it was possible a war would break out. Wang said a minority of Taiwan independence activists were agitating to hold a referendum on a new Constitution for the island. President Chen had backed away from this in his inaugural speech, Wang said. “But in the future, Chen Shui-bian may grasp the opportunity when the time is ripe and agitate for Taiwan independence by holding a referendum on a new Constitution using popular opinion as an excuse,” Wang said.

“If this is the case, the situation in the Taiwan Strait will be becoming increasingly tense and there may even be a serious crisis,” Wang warned. Wang said he was confident comrades on either side of the Taiwan Strait would take measures to show they were against Taiwan independence, so that independence agitators would not dare to act rashly. He said if the public remained alert and actively took steps against Taiwan independence, a clash across the Taiwan strait was not likely. Wang said China was looking to see if Chen’s constitutional amendments included changes to the island’s name, territories or boundaries.

He urged the island not to miscalculate China’s resolve on this issue.

In related reports, Wang said he had not heard of a Chinese policy stating the Taiwan question had to be resolved by 2020. China-backed Hong Kong media recently quoted China’s military chief Jiang Zemin as saying the Taiwan question had to be resolved by this time. The reports could not be verified.