Taiwan arms deal enough to give China bloody nose, but no more

TAIPEI (Reuters) - A new US arms package for Taiwan will help boost the self-ruled island's ability to inflict a bloody nose on China in the attempt of an attack, enough to make Beijing think twice before any military adventure.

But Taiwan, which is expected to vote in a new government next month less friendly to China, needs advanced weapons such as the latest fighter jets or submarine-making technology if it stands a chance of holding off a concerted Chinese assault before US forces come to the rescue.

"The idea is to complicate China's scenarios, to make them pause, to get them to think twice before they attack," said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council.

China quickly criticized this week's US$1.83 billion (S$2.58 billion) deal, the first arms sales to Taiwan that the Obama administration has approved in four years, saying it interferes with its sovereignty over Taiwan. The deal includes two Navy frigates, combat systems for mine-sweepers, missiles, amphibious attack vehicles and communications systems.

Compared to China's ambitious build-up of its military, the world's largest, Taiwan's arms deals are aimed at survivability.

Giving its latest assessment on China's forces in September, Taiwan's defence ministry indicated Beijing could devote 400,000 of its 1.24 million-strong ground force in combat against the island. That would give it a two-to-one advantage against Taiwan's 215,000 full time troops.

Taiwan is highly vulnerable to a quick strike, experts say. Chinese fighter jets could scream across the narrow Taiwan Strait in minutes and take out Taiwan's air fields, while China rains down some of the hundreds of missiles it is believed to have targeted at the island.

Still, maintaining an updated stockpile of military equipment and munitions - like the items in this week's arms deal - is as important as having "big-ticket" items to sustain Taiwan's self defence, said Shirley Kan, a retired Congressional researcher who has tracked US arms sales to Taiwan since 1990

WASHINGTON "PROTECTION PLEDGE"

On Friday, China's influential Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party's official People's Daily, said China would maintain its military superiority no matter what weapons the United States sold Taiwan.

"Washington's protection pledge is the only card that the island has for its defence, and it is a weakening one," it said in an editorial. "Given the mainland's steadily growing military power, once the US gets involved in a conflict in the Taiwan Straits, it will face increasing costs and consequences."

Taiwan and the United States have close security ties and Washington is obligated by law to support Taiwan in defending itself.

One senior Beijing-based Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity and citing conversations with Chinese strategists, said the last thing China wanted was armed confrontation with Washington.

"They can't guarantee winning, and they would face huge domestic consequences" for a botched military operation, the diplomat said.

Taiwan's independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is likely to win January's presidential and parliamentary elections, says stronger defence capabilities for the island would give Taiwan better confidence to expand exchanges with China.

Defeated Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war with the Communists in 1949. Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring what it deems a renegade province under its control.

But any Chinese attempt to forcibly occupy Taiwan would likely trigger a regional conflagration, said Hammond-Chambers of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council.

"It's almost inconceivable that a fight over Taiwan wouldn't escalate and involve US and Japanese forces, maybe even Korean and Australian as well - very difficult to predict."