Tthousands of protesters take the streets of the capital to denounce an arms deal with the U.S., Saturday, Sept. 25, 2004, in Taipei, Taiwan. Taiwan's premier on Saturday said a government plan to spend billions of dollars on U.S. weapons would help the island defend itself if rival China attacked. Protesters are urging the government to scrap the big U.S. weapons package they said would trigger an arms race with China and squeeze social welfare. (AP Photo/Jerome Favre)
TAIPEI - Thousands of protesters marched through Taiwan's capital on Saturday, urging the government to scrap a big U.S. weapons package they said would trigger an arms race with China and squeeze social welfare.
Defending the T$610.8 billion ($18.2 billion) deal, Premier Yu Shyi-kun said maintaining strong defense and a military balance with the island's arch-foe were critical to security.
"If you attack me with 100 missiles, I will at least attack you with 50. If you attack Taipei and Kaohsiung, I will attack Shanghai," Yu said in a speech before the protest.
"If we have such counter-strike capability today, Taiwan is safe," he said in comments broadcast on cable news networks.
The weapons package is made up of $4.3 billion for Patriot Advanced-Capability 3 missile defenses, $12.3 billion for eight diesel-electric submarines and $1.6 billion for 12 P-3C Orion submarine-hunting aircraft.
China has viewed self-governing Taiwan as a breakaway province since a bloody civil war in 1949 and has threatened to attack if the island declares formal independence.
Many security analysts see the Taiwan Strait as the most dangerous flashpoint in Asia.
Protesters disagreed with Yu's comments.
"President Chen Shui-bian only likes to please the United States to protect his presidency. He wants to die, but we will not follow him," said a retired soldier, surnamed Chang.
A 40-year-old housewife surnamed Lin, said: "We don't want any war, especially since both sides are Chinese."
Holding banners reading "Our money, Your war," "Want peace, No war," the protesters ranging from veterans to unemployed workers and children, joined the march to the presidential palace.
Some protesters brought with them bubble tea that became a symbol of anti-arms purchases after the defense ministry issued pamphlets saying Taiwan could afford the weapons if its 23 million people each drank one less bubble tea a week.
The milky drink containing small balls of glutinous sago is a Taiwan specialty.
Protesters carry banners during a march to the presidential palace in Taipei, September 25, 2004. Thousands of protesters marched through Taiwan's capital on Saturday, urging the government to scrap a big U.S. weapons package they said would trigger an arms race with China and squeeze social welfare. REUTERS/Stringer
The arms package has come under growing criticism, with opponents charging that the weapons are too costly or take too long to deploy to be an effective defense.
Opposition parties, which hold a slim majority in parliament, said the island could not afford the weapons and the money should be spent on social welfare or education.
If approved by parliament, the weapons deal -- first offered by President Bush three years ago -- would be the biggest in a decade.
The military says the package will help Taiwan maintain a balance of military power with China for another 30 years, but if it falls through, China will have the capability to attack the island in the next 2 to 3 years.
President Chen said earlier this week China has 610 missiles pointed at Taiwan and was increasing its arsenal by 50 to 70 missiles every year. Last December, Chen said China had 496 missiles facing Taiwan.
© Reuters 2004