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    Greater China
     Jun 10, 2010
French snub costs Taiwan's military
By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI - After Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, his Kuomintang Party (KMT) government invited reporters to a show of military strength.

Journalists were shown the Mirage 2000-5 fighter fleet, demonstrated as the pride of Taiwan's air force, while the navy showed off its Lafayette frigates, the island's most advanced combat ship. There was much awe over the two centerpieces of Taiwan's weaponry, both had one thing in common: their country of origin was France.

But now, fears are being raised over combat readiness, since the era of Franco-Taiwanese military cooperation may be over. The French government is said to have closed a military liaison office in Taiwan - under the French Institute in Taipei - and scrapped

 

plans to deliver strategically important weapon systems. The reason for France's withdrawal lies in dismay over a recent court ruling on an arms deal that went wrong almost two decades ago.

In April, a court ordered the French side of an ongoing case to pay an estimated US$861 million to Taiwan over an arms deal from 1991. Taiwan's navy that year bought six Lafayette frigates from France's Thomson-CSF, a deal that led to a major scandal in both countries. It became apparent that the French company had paid huge kickbacks of reportedly US$400 million to French and Chinese officials to make the procurement go smoothly. Through attempts to cover up payments of bribes, eight people mysteriously lost their lives or disappeared. When Taiwan's Chinese-language daily the Liberty Times reported that Taipei and Paris had reached a settlement, the political and legal nightmare seemed to finally have come to an end.

However, the Franco-Taiwanese frigate story took another twist in May when Taiwan's Ministry of Defense declared that it had won the Lafayette case in the Paris-based International Court of Arbitration (ICA), which is an institution for the resolution of international commercial disputes, not as part of an out-of-court settlement.

The fact that the case was pursued in an international court rather than Taiwan accepting an out-of-court settlement was a major snub to France.

Ma applauded the ruling. His government played down possible repercussions of having obviously snubbed France. The cabinet praised itself for having shown its commitment to clean governance and a corruption-free military. It didn't take long, however, until Ma's triumph took a dent.

A story appeared, again in the Liberty Times, on an expatriate Frenchman. Didier Cornolle had lived in Taiwan for five years and was married to a Taiwanese woman, but he had been suddenly ordered home. His alleged occupation was leader of a small team of French military technicians that functioned as a connecting point between France's and Taiwan's governments, arm dealers and Taiwan's military.

Without French support, Taiwan's Lafayette frigates are vulnerable. The air force's spare parts problem is also bound to become more serious. However, what's most alarming to many Taiwanese is that the French withdrawal effectively leaves Taiwan's arms supply almost solely in the hands of Washington.

"It's not so much security concerns that worry most people here. It's simply the belief that if the French pull out, the Americans will overcharge us for weapons," said Professor George Tsai, political scientist at Taiwan's Sun Yet-sen Graduate Institute, in an interview with Asia Times Online. "Taiwan's military has always sought to diversify its sources of arms to avoid being overly dependent on the US. Through France's withdrawal, Taiwan has fewer choices."

The French government has regularly denied that it has been maintaining a so-called military liaison office in Taiwan, but Taiwanese officials have in many instances indirectly admitted the existence of such an institution.

Taiwan's opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party or DPP, says that France's withdrawal will undermine Taiwan's military combat readiness. This is apparent from the state of Taiwan's Lafayette and Mirage fleets. A major Taiwanese naval main mission is the prevention of sea blockades through China's navy and in particular through China's submarines. The procurement of the Lafayettes was meant to give Taiwan a significant advantage over China. However, the superb anti-submarine and stealth features of the French-made ships - which have the radar signature of a medium-sized fishing trawler - stand in a sharp contrast to the capabilities of its on-board weapon systems.

Since France hasn't sold its shipboard weapons to the Taiwanese, the Lafayettes have been relying on relatively unsophisticated domestic and US-made equipment. Air defense capabilities are believed to be too poor to withstand a Chinese attack coming from more than one direction. Software that has been developed by the Taiwanese navy to connect the French systems of the craft with the domestic and US-produced onboard weaponry still has major flaws.

These problems were almost solved. France was about to equip the Taiwanese Lafayettes with the highly effective Aster air-defense system that was initially developed for the French and Italian militaries. However, together with the withdrawal of the technical team, these plans were scrapped.

As is the case with the navy's Lafayettes, the fate of Taiwan's Mirage-2000 heavily depends on cooperation with France. The fleet of more than 50 planes that is stationed at Hsinchu air base protects Taiwan's industrial heartland. Although the Mirage is Taiwan's most advanced fighter jet, there have been myriad technical problems. Taiwan needs France for the continued supply of spare parts and for training and testing.

However, instead of giving in to French pressure, Taiwan's government has a somewhat defiant mindset, said Tsai. "The Taiwanese always believe they can start projects with the help of foreign expertise and then finish doing things themselves. In the past, this mentality led quite a few times to failure not only in the military but also in the civilian sector."

The "failures in the civilian sector" Tsai refers to were likely to have caused Ma lots of headaches throughout his political career. Ironically, the two most prominent cases also involved French companies, one of which, Matra, produced the Mica and Magic II missiles employed at the Mirage-2000.

When Ma was mayor of Taipei from 1998 to 2006, he was responsible for the construction of two major public infrastructure projects that still haunt the politician-turned lawyer. In the 1990s, Matra was a major supplier for a subway line built in Taipei. The project was plagued by technical failures and disputes. Matra claimed that Taipei City's government under Ma was the cause of the problems since it botched areas of construction that fell under the responsibility of Taiwanese companies.

Also embarrassing was an incident on the Maokong Gondola, a cable car system in Taipei, when mayor Hau Lung-pin and Ma were stuck in mid-air for 10 minutes on the first day of operation due to a technical glitch. The system had been built by the French company Poma during Ma's mayoral tenure. The gondolas, which were originally designed for the European Alps, had been ordered by Ma's city government without air-conditioning. This was hard to swallow for passengers suffering in Taiwan's sub-tropical heat. To make things worse, Maokong Gondola was closed from October 2008 to earlier this year after a mudslide hit a support pillar.

Most commentators agree that the government's snub of France through the pursuing of the Lafayette case at the International Court of Arbitration led to the closure of France's military liaison office in Taiwan. Yet, the reason why Ma irritated France isn't so clear. Was it because the KMT wants to appease China by neglecting Taiwan's military, or was it because Ma simply came to dislike the French over his experiences as the mayor of Taipei?
Tsai laughs out loud at these suggestions. "Nonsense. The reason for Ma Ying-jeou's insistence on going after France in the international court is his professional background. Ma is a lawyer. The French have broken the contract, and a government under Ma Ying-jeou adheres to the law, no matter what."

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based reporter.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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