SCMP Tuesday, April 3, 2001

Spy plane row rings alarm bells in Taiwan

REUTERS in Taipei

Updated at 4.11pm:
The Sino-US spy plane crisis set alarm bells ringing in Taiwan on Monday, with defence analysts saying that it could compromise the island's chances of buying a US radar defence system.
But a junior defence minister told parliament that much would depend on how Washington and Beijing resolved the dispute, which began after a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter plane over the South China Sea and fell into Chinese hands.
''Whether it will have an impact on US arms sale to us depends on how the United States and Communist China resolve the incident,'' Vice-Defence Minister Kao Yang told a parliamentary session.
''If both sides take a hard stand, it could help US arms sales to us. If the incident is settled soon, it is difficult to say whether it will be advantageous or disadvantageous to us,'' the state-funded Central News Agency quoted Mr Kao as saying.
But defence analysts on the island took a bleaker view, saying the incident could dash the island's hopes of buying the missile-hunting Aegis radar system from the United States.
The crisis erupted on Sunday after the mid-air collision between a US EP-3 surveillance aircraft and a Chinese fighter on an interception mission. The US plane and its 24 crew made an emergency landing in the southern Chinese island of Hainan.
Taiwan is due to hold talks with the United States in April to buy four Aegis-equipped guided missile destroyers - the most advanced system on the island's shopping list - at nearly US$1 billion (HK$7.79 billion) apiece.
''It adds more obstacles to US deliberation on whether to sell the Aegis radar system to Taiwan,'' Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei, a private think-tank, said.
Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway province since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949. It has threatened to attack the island if it declares independence or drags its feet on unification talks.
Analysts said the United States, eager to get its spy plane and crew back, may be arm-twisted into rejecting the island's weapons wish list.
''As a result of the incident, the United States and Communist China could discuss ways to avoid possible tension and how to manage a potential crisis in future,'' Mr Yang said.
''Communist China could remind the United States that selling weapons to Taiwan would escalate tensions in the Taiwan Strait,'' Mr Yang said.
Steve Chou, a member of parliament's defence committee, said the surveillance plane was an intelligence gold mine for China.
''Communist China will check out the electronic equipment on the surveillance aircraft and learn or copy what it can,'' said Mr Chou, a retired army lieutenant-general.
''It'll try to put pressure on the United States not to sell the Aegis radar and other hi-tech weaponry to Taiwan,'' he added.