In 1996 the US demonstrated in a military showdown with China that it's quite willing to defend Taiwan without any official "strategic ambiguity." President Clinton sent two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Strait after Chinese test missiles flew just a bit too close to the island.
Then why all the fuss over a pending decision by President Bush about whether to sell an advanced radar system - or a lesser option, submarines - to Taiwan? Isn't the US already the island's last-resort defender, although not officially?
The real issue is that Beijing has a long-term fear that the US will use several Asian nations - such as Taiwan - to set up a high-tech defense network around China that could prevent it from someday wielding influence in the region with military threats.
By providing Taiwan with the sophisticated Aegis radar system, the US could be laying a building block for a regionwide communications and detection network arcing from South Korea to Thailand. And the next step could be to loop Taiwan into a US missile defense system that would reduce China's ability to threaten the US.
But integrating Taiwan into a US security architecture can wait. Taiwan has already received over $20 billion in US arms since 1992. China's armed forces are years, perhaps even decades, behind those of the US. In the meantime, Beijing's ambitions toward Taiwan and the rest of Asia could change as rapid economic progress and exposure to the world change that country in many ways.
Delaying the sale of the Aegis will upset many in the US who want to teach China a lesson for holding 24 Americans in the spy-plane incident. But that plane's mission in tracking the Chinese military, like the US potential to sell the Aegis to Taiwan, is lesson enough that the US has ample ability to defend its interests and keep Taiwan safe.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor