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Our Next Message to Beijing

Today, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “serious concern and strong dissatisfaction” with a mistaken shipment of American military parts to Taiwan. It then urged the United States to report the details to Beijing so as to eliminate “severe consequences.” The Taiwanese had requested replacement battery packs for their American-made helicopters. Instead, they received four nose-cone fuse assemblies used to trigger nuclear weapons.

The sharp Chinese reaction came after yesterday’s Pentagon announcement that the Defense Logistics Agency had made the incorrect shipment to Taiwan in August 2006. The Taiwanese had noticed the mistake and contacted U.S. authorities in early 2007, yet it was only last Thursday before anyone in the Defense Department realized what had actually been sent. Defense Secretary Gates and President Bush were informed on Friday.

“Our policy on Taiwan arms sales has not changed,” said Ryan Henry, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, yesterday. “This specific incident was an error in process only, and is not indicative of our policies, which remain unchanged.”

But should they remain unchanged? Many argue that, if we want to make sure there is no war in the Taiwan Strait, we should help the Taiwanese build a bomb or, better yet, just give them a few weapons in order to create a stable balance of terror with China. Moreover, some believe that the threat to arm Taiwan and Japan would be the most effective way to get Beijing to stop supporting the nuclear weapons programs of North Korea and Iran.

These proposals, despite apparent advantages, do not represent sound policy choices, at least at this moment. For one thing, both would be clear violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the global pact that in fact prevents the spread of nukes. Yet if we don’t disarm Kim Jong Il and stop Iran’s “atomic ayatollahs” now, we will undoubtedly see the rapid dispersion of nuclear weapons soon. As Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has noted, about forty nations have the capability to develop the bomb within a decade.

The primary reason that prevents them from doing so is the so-called “nuclear taboo,” which is reinforced by the nonproliferation treaty. Once weapons technology starts to spread to dangerous states, however, other nations will have no choice but to accumulate atomic arsenals to defend themselves. When that happens, the nonproliferation agreement will become a dead letter. Some analysts, like Kenneth Waltz, think the world could be more stable then, but I know it will be worse. Things cannot get better when tyrants, terrorists, and thugs will be able to bring on Armageddon.

So what should we now say to the angry Chinese? Today, we should confirm that the shipment to Taiwan was an error. Tomorrow, the message may be different. If the Chinese continue to prevent us from disarming North Korea and stopping Iran, we should say that our next transfer of warhead mechanisms to the Taiwanese will not be a mistake.


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