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President to Sell F-16s to Taiwan, Officials Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Overturning a decade of U.S. policy toward China, President Bush has decided to clear the way for the sale of American F-16 warplanes to Taiwan to counteract Beijing’s growing military power, Administration sources and congressional officials said Tuesday.

The President is expected to make an official announcement today during a Texas trip. While White House officials Tuesday would not officially confirm the decision to sell the fighters, they did acknowledge that Bush will stop in the Fort Worth area today and will meet with workers at General Dynamics, the company that produces the F-16s.

A spokesman for Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) said Tuesday night that the senator “has been reliably informed” that Bush will make public his approval for the sale of F-16s to Taiwan during his Texas campaign swing.

The F-16 sale would mark an important victory for Taiwan and a defeat for China on an issue on which both governments have maneuvered since the early 1980s. Bush’s decision also apparently will be a setback for France, which had hoped to sell its own warplanes to Taiwan to help salvage French defense industries.

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Asked how the Bush Administration will explain its decision to Beijing, one U.S. official quipped: “It’s like the old one where you have to kick your kid in the fanny and say, ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you.’ ”

The Administration’s decision demonstrates the close interaction between foreign policy and presidential politics. In late July, General Dynamics said that it was planning to lay off 5,800 of the 20,000 workers at its plant in Fort Worth over the next two years. Texas Gov. Ann Richards, a Democrat, quickly and publicly blamed the loss of jobs on Bush’s opposition to the sale of jet fighters to Taiwan.

A few days later, the President, on another Texas campaign trip, told reporters there that he was reconsidering the long U.S. prohibition against allowing Taiwan to buy advanced American warplanes.

Ten years ago, in an agreement that then-Vice President Bush helped to negotiate, the United States signed a communique with China’s Communist government, agreeing to restrict U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and eventually to phase them out. The deal was worked out at a time when Taiwan was seeking to persuade the Ronald Reagan Administration to let it buy F-16s.

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American officials now argue that the military balance between China and Taiwan has been fundamentally changed by Beijing’s recent purchases of Russian Sukhoi 27 warplanes, advanced jet fighters with a range of more than 2,400 miles.

Until that sale, both China and Taiwan were flying less-advanced 1960s-era military jets. Taiwan’s air force flies antiquated American F-5Es and F-104s, planes so old that many have been involved in crashes. Taiwan is also in the process of developing its own jet fighter with the help of American technology, but those planes will not be ready for years.

Taiwan had been on the verge of buying French Mirage jets. U.S. officials are reportedly prepared to tell China that it is better for Beijing’s interests if the United States remains Taiwan’s one and only supplier of advanced military hardware. “As long as we are the only supplier to Taiwan, then there’s some control over things,” said one Administration official. “If there are no controls, then anybody will sell anything to Taiwan--the French, the Russians, anyone.”

While Pentagon officials generally favored approval of the sale to Taiwan, some State Department officials argued against it, saying it would complicate U.S. relations with China and might prompt Beijing to retaliate, perhaps by making things tougher for American businesses in China or for American foreign policy in Asia. Some State Department officials said it would be better to let France take the lead--and, in the process, to take the heat from Beijing.

Last spring, when France first proposed selling its Mirages to Taiwan, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman warned that Paris would suffer “a strong reaction” from China. But several U.S. officials said this week that they have been surprised by the seemingly quiet response from Beijing in recent weeks while the sale was being publicly discussed.

Some China analysts believe that Beijing is reluctant to retaliate against the United States now because Congress is preparing to vote later this month on a renewal of China’s trade benefits in this country. China’s trade surplus of more than $13 billion annually with the United States would be jeopardized if it lost its most-favored-nation trade status--the privilege under which Chinese goods can be imported with relatively low tariffs.

One Administration source said Tuesday night that Bush will clear the way for the sale of about 100 to 150 F-16s. A Bentsen spokesman said the senator hopes for approval of 180 planes. One congressional study estimated that a sale of 180 F-16s would create 6,000 to 10,000 jobs--roughly half of them in Texas. Such a sale would be worth at least $6 billion and perhaps as much as $10 billion, the study found.

In 1979, after the United States established diplomatic relations with China and broke ties with Taiwan, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, a law promising that the United States will provide Taiwan with defensive arms. Three years later, in its communique with Beijing, the Reagan Administration agreed to limit the quantity and quality of American arms supplied to Taiwan.

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Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Douglas Jehl contributed to this story.


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