The Magazine

Tear Gas and Running Dogs

The scandal-rocked government of Taiwan.

Dec 4, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 12 • By DAVID DEVOSS
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IN TAIWAN, President Chen Shui-bian, America's longest-tenured ally in East Asia, is suffering a seven-year slump. Indeed, Chen leads an administration that is moribund thanks to a toxic political culture that makes Washington partisanship almost seem collegial.

The immediate cause of Taipei's governmental crisis is an extended corruption investigation that two weeks ago resulted in Chen's wife, Wu Shu-jen, being indicted for misappropriating $450,000 from a secret state affairs fund. Three other members of the Presidential Office also face prosecution, as does Chen's son-in-law, who is accused of insider trading. Chen can't be charged with anything as long as he's in office.

In his defense, Chen says he has no motive for embezzlement, pointing out that since taking office in 2000, he voluntarily has relinquished half his salary, thereby saving taxpayers a cumulative $1.38 million. The point is lost on Chen's detractors, who rally every weekend to demand his resignation.

Chen's opponents in the Legislative Yuan, which is controlled by the Nationalist Chinese party or Kuomintang (KMT) and the smaller People First party (PFP), don't have enough votes for impeachment. But together they can block critical legislation and freeze or reduce appropriations. Earlier this year, the KMT cut 21 percent of Taipei's Mainland Affairs Council budget, and then froze half of what remained. This month it struck again, slicing $3.7 million from the presidential travel budget and a fund used to administer overseas diplomatic offices.

The KMT's most controversial action has been to stall the purchase of $18 billion in U.S. military equipment. The package originally included 12 P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, 8 diesel-electric submarines, and 6 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 anti -missile batteries. Despite being whittled down to a fraction of its original size, the transaction has been blocked more than 60 times, to the distress of American Institute in Taiwan director Stephen Young, who functions as the de facto U.S. ambassador. Late last month, Young took his concerns public at a Taipei news conference, where he said, "Taiwan cannot continue to allow its vital security interests to be held hostage to domestic partisan concerns."

"I think [certain legislators] are acting against the best interests of Taiwan," Young continued, "and I simply hope they will reflect on this, and reflect on the importance to Taiwan's security of addressing this in a non partisan manner."

Response to Young's comments came swiftly. PFP party leader James Soong denounced Young's "ultimatum" and said he'd never approve a "fool's arms purchase." Borrowing the playbook of Mao's Red Guards, opposition demonstrators then stormed the legislature shouting, "Supporters of arms purchases are running dogs!" When Chen Shui-bian's Democratic Progressive party (DPP) finally managed to get a hearing on weapons procurement scheduled, one legislator opposed to the deal popped a canister of tear gas in the committee chamber to forestall serious discussion.

There is no doubt that Taiwan is under the gun. Beijing has close to 900 ballistic missiles, many of them on mobile launchers, targeted on Taiwan. Mainland China's military boasts a growing array of sophisticated weapons systems that range from 4 new classes of modern destroyers to multimission tactical aircraft and a fleet of 80 diesel submarines.

By comparison, the newest additions to Taiwan's fleet are two 23-year-old destroyers built for but never delivered to Iran that were decommissioned by the U.S. Navy before Taiwan plucked them from the mothballs last year.

"China's principal military modernization aims are to deter Taiwan from moving toward independence; to defeat and occupy Taiwan if it declares independence and to accomplish this before U.S. or other military assistance can arrive; and to deny U.S. forces the ability to intercede effectively in such a conflict," the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission said in its 2006 report released to Congress earlier this month. "The Commission concludes that Taiwan's ability to defend itself from attack and intimidation is in doubt and that China could impede the United States' ability to intervene successfully in a crisis or conflict."

KMT officials insist they aren't soft on defense and that the party supports buying Orion patrol aircraft. "We don't like those guys any more than you do," says KMT legislator Su Chi, referring to mainland Communists. "But we have to manage the threat wisely," he says. "Our salvation does not lie in a military approach."