President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) yesterday called on the opposition-dominated Legislature to make known its attitude toward the arms purchase plan, frustrated at the body's refusal to review the measure despite the government's concessions to end the stalemate.
Chen, who has adopted a low-key profile after his Democratic Progressive Party suffered an embarrassing defeat in the recent elections for local governors, warned that a continued boycott may prompt the United States to call off the deal and cut military ties with Taiwan.
Again, the president's remarks failed to win sympathy with the opposition Kuomintang and People First Party whose legislative leaders reiterated they support beefing up the nation's defense but frown on doing so at unreasonable costs.
The Chen administration has proposed buying six PAC-3 anti-missile systems, eight diesel-electric submarines and 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarines aircraft offered by Washington to help Taiwan defend itself.
"What're we going to do if they decide not to sell us weapons any more," the president said during the ceremony to commission two Kidd-class frigates in Keelung. "What should the administration do to satisfy all parties involved? Let the Legislature shed clear light. The Cabinet will try its best to accommodate different opinions."
To expedite the procurement plan, Chen noted, the Cabinet agreed in August to shift the patriot missile costs to annual budgets and request slightly over NT$300 billion in special funds for the submarines and anti-submarine aircraft over the 15 fiscal years.
Chen stressed there is no partisan motive behind the deal as the purchase program was conceived before he assumed the presidency in 2000 and the weapons will not be delivered until after his tenure expires in 2008.
"National security is so important for the nation's democratic and economic developments that no party should allow selfish concerns to cloud their judgments," the president urged.
He added that if the opposition parties consider the package expensive, they may go ahead and cut its prices as they see fit rather than block its discussion altogether. Last Tuesday, opposition lawmakers killed the proposal to place the measure on the calendar for the 41st time.
To demonstrate Taiwan's resolve to guard its own safety, Chen said the government would seek to gradually boost national defense spending to three percent of gross domestic product by 2008. The expenditure currently stands at 2.4 percent.
"There is no such thing as cheap national defense," Chen said. "Let's stay united in the effort to preserve stability across the Taiwan Strait."
The opposition parties remained unconvinced, however.
KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said he struck an agreement with his PFP counterpart James Soong (宋楚瑜) a week ago that the nation should maintain proper defense capability at a reasonable cost. The two parties will unveil their views on the matter after careful consultations, Ma added.
Echoing Ma's theme, KMT legislative leader Tseng Yung-chuan (曾永權) emphasized that his colleagues never rejected the procurement plan but needed more time and information to weigh the pros and cons of the package.
Tseng said his caucus would welcome an increase in the annual budget for regular defense spending but suggested the government carry out the adjustment without delay.
Shuai Hua-ming (帥化民), another KMT lawmaker and former lieutenant general, has argued that the Ministry of Defense should also include the NT$50 billion expense for anti-submarine aircraft in the annual budgets on the grounds that the weapon is not difficult to acquire. The government can buy the aircraft anytime if it really wants, Shuai said.
Other KMT lawmakers have voiced reservations about the submarine pricing, noting the government has supplied little information about its model and equipment.
The PFP, on the other hand, adhered to the opinion that the government should exclude the patriot missiles from the purchase plan.
PFP legislative leader Sun Ta-chien (孫大千) said the people have made clear their objection to the procurement in the first-ever referendum held together with the presidential election last year.
Sun added that his caucus would consider reviewing the arms package if the government agrees to finance the purchase plan with regular funds instead of special budgets to keep down national debts.