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
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
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
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
"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
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
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."