Staking out a middle ground between angering China and helping Taiwan, President Bush has decided to sell Taiwan older destroyers, diesel submarines, sub-hunting aircraft and a new version of Patriot air defense missiles--but not the advanced radar system sought by the Taipei government, U.S. officials said Monday.
However, the president intends to reconsider Taiwan’s request next year, according to a top Republican senator who was briefed by Pentagon officials.
The deferral gives China a chance to reduce the number of missiles it has aimed at the island, a move that could lessen the chances of the U.S. selling its Aegis equipment to Taiwan in the future.
An announcement of Bush’s decision, expected as early as today, would come barely three weeks after the collision of an American surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea that sent tensions between the two countries soaring. China detained the American crew members for 11 days before releasing them April 12.
The arms package is likely to elicit strong public opposition in Beijing--but also a private sense of relief.
Although the Chinese government blasts any weapons sales to Taiwan as unacceptable foreign interference, it concentrated its lobbying efforts against the Aegis system rather than the entire list of arms that Washington might sell. China’s leaders fear that Aegis, combined with U.S. plans for a theater missile defense system, would embolden Taiwan to put off the idea of reunification with China further--perhaps indefinitely.
For its part, the government in Taipei had readied itself for a denial of its request for Aegis-equipped naval destroyers. But the Kidd-class ships and the diesel submarines would be welcome additions in the event of an attempted blockade by the Chinese navy.
The president’s decision is all but certain to be criticized by “a fair number” of pro-Taiwan Republican senators, predicted Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The dispute with China over the surveillance plane raised the ire of many China critics, who pushed the Bush administration to take a harder line against Beijing--in part by giving Taiwan the weapons it requested.
Warner will not be among the critics. He urged Bush to sell Taiwan the less sophisticated radar defense system installed on the Kidd-class destroyers, and said in an interview that he “will be a strong supporter of the president’s package.”
The advanced Aegis radar systems, which are capable of performing search and missile-guidance functions and tracking 100 or more targets simultaneously, are installed on state-of-the-art Arleigh Burke class destroyers.
Another item on Taiwan’s shopping list that the White House elected not to fill, according to those who have seen the list, is a request for M1 tanks.
Instead, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recommended to Bush that Washington sell Taiwan four Kidd-class destroyers, which are more than 20 years old and no longer in use in the U.S. Navy, according to U.S. officials.
Kidd destroyers cost about $185 million each, according to military experts. An Aegis-equipped ship goes for about $1 billion.
Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.), who just returned from a trip to Tawian, said the sales are vital for the island’s defense, “but they clearly fall short of what the Taiwanese leaders had described as essential.”
A senior White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for protocol reasons, told reporters, “We think there is nothing in this package for China to fear.”
Bush himself did not give any public signals of his decision. Asked by reporters about the matter during a public appearance at the White House on Monday, the president replied:
“You’ll find out when I make my decision clear. I haven’t made it clear yet. We’ll let you know soon.”
A military delegation from Taiwan is to meet here with senior Pentagon officials today and at that time will be informed officially of the president’s decision, the White House said.
Before word of Bush’s decision began filtering out, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer characterized the president’s impending decision as one dictated by the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, which obligates Washington to provide for the island’s security, including arming it with defensive weapons.
The president’s spokesman also indicated in his daily briefing that Bush’s decision was based on many considerations, including tensions in the region. Although he declined to discuss the decision, Fleischer said Bush was bringing a sense of realism to American foreign policy.
Even before the aircraft collision April 1, which was followed by the detention of the 24 crew members, the impending weapons sale to Taiwan was shaping up as among the most sensitive foreign policy issues to reach the Oval Office since Bush became president.
Beijing has vehemently argued against supplying Taiwan with high-tech systems, saying that such weapons could heighten tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing claims Taiwan as a renegade province. Taiwan fears that China might use its growing missile force before an invasion of the island, and thus wants the Aegis air defense system. Such a system, China fears, may prompt Taiwan to act upon its independence aspirations.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said China’s “highly inappropriate” detention of the American reconnaissance plane crew “and their continued refusal to return our aircraft should not play a role in the arms sale decision.”
But Levin called on Bush to express U.S. dismay over the incident by canceling his state visit to Beijing this fall.
Also on Monday, the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Yang Jiechi, in a speech at the National Press Club, cautioned against “the Cold War mentality” and urged Washington to “stop selling advanced weapons to Taiwan.”
Yang also called on the U.S. to “take steps to check separatist activities by Lee Teng-hui and others on U.S. soil.”
Lee, a former president of Taiwan, is scheduled to begin a U.S. visit next week. Another potential irritant in the Sino-U.S. relationship is the intention of Taiwan’s current president, Chen Shui-bian, to travel through the U.S. on a visit to Central America in May.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
How Taiwan’s military stacks up against neighboring China’s.
Sources: Center for Defense Information, Federation of American Scientists, Associated Press
Times staff writers Jim Mann, Paul Richter and Robin Wright in Washington and Henry Chu in Beijing contributed to this report.