After Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, his KMT government invited reporters to a show of military strength. Demonstrated was the Mirage 2000-5 fighter fleet, the pride of Taiwan’s air force. The navy as well showed off sophistication. Maneuvers were held with journalists stationed on the island’s most advanced combat ship, the Lafayette frigate. There was much awe over the two centerpieces of Taiwan’s weaponry which have one thing in common: Their country of origin is France.
Nowadays, the state of Taiwan’s French-made arms’ combat readiness is in danger. Times of Franco-Taiwan military cooperation seem to be over. The French government is said to close a military liaison office and to have scrapped plans to deliver strategically important systems. The reason for France’s withdrawal lies in its dismay over a court ruling in an arms deal scandalously botched almost two decades ago. The Paris-based International Court of Arbitration ordered the French side to pay an estimated US$861 million to Taiwan. By pursuing the law suit in an international court rather than accepting the out-of-court settlement offered by France, Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou’s has delivered Paris a major snub.
Without continued French support, Taiwan’s Lafayette frigates are vulnerable. The air force’s chronic spare parts problem is 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 believed that if the French pull out, the Americans will overcharge us for weapons”, explains Prof. George Tsai, political scientist at Taiwan’s Sun Yet-sen Graduate Institute in an interview given to 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.”
It all began in 1991 when Taiwan’s navy bought six Lafayette frigates of France’s Thomson-CSF. The deal led to a major scandal in both countries. It became apparent that the French company paid huge kickbacks of reportedly US$400 million to French and Chinese officials to make the procurement go ahead smoothly. Through attempts to cover up payments of bribes, eight people mysteriously lost their lives or disappeared. The Lafayette case went through the courts for years, and when Taiwan’s Chinese-language daily ‘The Liberty Times’ reported that in April 2010 Taipei and Paris have found a consensus for an out-of-court settlement, the political and legal nightmare that has dragged on for so long, seemed to finally have come to an end.
Surprisingly, the Franco-Taiwan frigate story took yet another twist when in early May Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense declared that it won the Lafayette case in the Paris-based International Court of Arbitration, an institution for the resolution of international commercial disputes.
President Ma Ying-jeou applauded the ruling. His government played down possible repercussions of obviously having snubbed France. The Cabinet praised itself for having shown its commitment for clean governance and a corruption-free military.
It didn’t take long, however, that Ma Ying-jeou’s triumph over having successfully managed to highlight his administration’s clean image got a dent. It was again the ‘Liberty Times’ that ran the story on a ‘Monsieur Didier Cornolle’. The expatriate Frenchmen has lived in Taiwan for five years, is married to a Taiwanese and suddenly got order to relocate back to France. His alleged occupation: 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.
The French government 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, DPP, says that France’s withdrawal leads to an undermining of Taiwan’s military combat readiness. That this claim contains a good portion of truth becomes apparent when looking at the nature of Taiwan’s Lafayette and Mirage fleets. Taiwan’s navy’s 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 antisubmarine 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 onboard weapon systems.
Since France hasn’t sold its shipboard weapons to the Taiwanese, the Lafayettes have been relying on relatively unsophisticated domestically 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 domestically 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, initially developed for the French and Italian militaries. However, together with the withdrawal of the technical team, these plans were scrapped.
As it is the case with the navy’s Lafayettes, the fate of Taiwan’s air force’s Mirages-2000 too 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 myriads of technical problems in the past. Taiwan needs France for the continued supply of spare parts and for training and testing.
However, in spite of all this, instead of giving in to the French pressure, Taiwan’s government has a somewhat defiant mindset, says Prof. George Tsai. He explains: “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’ Prof. Tsai refers to were likely to have caused Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou 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 planning and construction of two major public infrastructure projects -one of which he inherited from his predecessor Chen Shui-bian- that still haunt the politician-turned lawyer. In the 90ies, 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 Mayor Chen Shui-bian has been cause of the problems through botching the areas of construction that fell under the responsibility of Taiwanese companies. The construction of the line’s extension took place in the years when Ma Ying-jeou served as Taipei’s mayor. Ma insistence on switching from the French Matra system to the Canadian firm Bombardier’s rolling stock led to frequent malfunctions and was heavily criticized as unprofessional.
Even more embarrassing was the Maokong Gondola case. Supplying Ma’s opponents with an extra large portion of malicious joy, Taiwan witnessed how on the first day of operation a technical flaw let Taipei mayor Hau Lung-pin and his predecessor Ma stuck in mid-air for ten minutes. The cable car system was built by the French company Poma during Ma’s mayoral tenure. The gondolas which were originally designed for the European Alps were ordered by the Taipei City government without air-conditioning. This imperfection was hard to swallow for passengers who rode the gondola in an environment as humid and hot as subtropical Taiwan. To make things even worse, from October 2008 to earlier this year, Maokong Gondola was closed due a mudslide that affected a support pillar.
Ma Ying-jeou has been heavily criticized for having pushed the cable car construction for the sake of meeting election-related schedules.
Taiwan’s political commentators share the opinion that Ma Ying-jeou’s government’s snub 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 President Ma Ying-jeou irritated France isn’t this 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?
Prof. George Tsai make these suggestions laugh out loudly. He says: “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.”