Int'l Herald Tribune

Taiwan cites betrayal by France over frigates

Paris briefed Beijing on deal, report says

Thursday, March 21, 2002

Thomas Crampton, International Herald Tribune

Hong Kong --- An explosive report by the Taiwan government alleges that France betrayed Taiwan's confidence by passing top-secret information to China about the controversial sale of $2.5 billion worth of French frigates to Taiwan in the early 1990s, according to people who have seen the report.

Written by Taiwan's top anti-graft body, the Control Yuan, the 400-page report also faults the investigation into the mysterious death of a Taiwanese navy captain who had been looking into irregularities of the frigate deal. It recommends the courts-martial of senior Taiwanese military officers including a former prime minister, former vice chief of the general staff and the navy's former commander in chief.

"The French side told Beijing all about the arms deal," Kang Ning-hsiang, senior member of Taiwan's top anti-graft body, said in releasing a small part of the report. He cited official documents obtained from the French government showing that the French prime minister at the time, Edith Cresson, instructed her foreign minister, Roland Dumas, to report to Beijing on all details of the transaction process.

The revelation that France was briefing Beijing on the frigate deal prompted a harshly anti-French headline in at least one Taiwan newspaper and will probably push Taiwanese to prefer U.S. arms suppliers in future, government officials said.

"We must now reconsider our whole policy of buying arms from countries other than the United States," said Roger Hsieh, a national policy adviser to President Chen Shui-bian. "The report shows how terribly the French treated us."

The scandal has its roots in the late 1980s, when Taiwan's military planners conceived of a new coastal defense scheme that relied on a fleet of small frigates.

The project was well into implementation by 1991 when the planned purchase of frigates from South Korea was abruptly dropped in favor of six larger and much more expensive warships built by the French company Thomson-CSF.

The decision seemed strange on many levels. The coastal defense plan called for frigates of no more than 2,000 tons, but the Thomson-CSF frigates have a displacement of more than 3,000 tons. Moreover, the frigates' $2.5 billion price tag made them the largest procurement contract in Taiwan's history.

Nonetheless, Taiwan's military leaders hailed the purchase as an opportunity to obtain high-tech weapons from Europe's largest arms exporter. The frigates themselves included no armaments, but Taiwan received a promise of future sales of French missiles, Mirage 2000-5 warplanes and a variety of weapons that other suppliers cannot produce.

Taipei's abrupt procurement switch was matched in Paris by a major policy reversal.

Sales of the radar-evading Lafayette frigates required overturning France's stated foreign policy stance of not supplying arms to Taiwan. Such a large contract, however, had great appeal in the context of France's rising unemployment and stagnant economy.

The mildness of Beijing's protest to the sale raised suspicious whispers in the French Foreign Ministry, but whispers on both sides of the world grew in intensity with the discovery of the corpse of Yin Ching-feng, a captain in the Taiwan Navy who had been investigating irregularities in the frigate deal.

Military coroners quickly concluded the death was a suicide. But an independent autopsy demanded by his widow called his death a murder, pointing out that not only had his head had been bashed in but painful wounds were also made to his body while he was still alive.

The report released this week concluded that military investigators had not only failed to collect fingerprints, but also had actually blocked investigators and withheld evidence that would prove his death a murder.

In 1997, investigators in Paris unearthed hints that payoffs had influenced the switch of French foreign policy that allowed the frigate sale.

A high-living French woman, Christine Deviers-Joncour, soon took center stage by alleging that she had paid Dumas, her former lover, to switch French policy while he was foreign minister. Deviers-Joncour also alleged that bribes had been paid for Taipei to break from its coastal defense project and other payments had been made to muffle Beijing's reaction.

Dumas denied all Deviers-Joncour's allegations, dismissing her as a compulsive liar. He was later convicted on charges of receiving kickbacks and is now appealing the verdict.

As described by Deviers-Joncour, however, the deal's key intermediary was her nominal employer, Elf-Acquitaine, a French oil company founded by de Gaulle that has traditionally had a heavy influence on French foreign policy and often been staffed by former military officers and spies.

Her book, "Whore of the Republic," along with documents later leaked to the French press, exposes a shadowy underworld of intermediaries allegedly operating in three countries without accountability to influence national defense and foreign policy.

So far more than 20 people, including three senior Taiwan Navy officers and Deviers-Joncour, have been jailed or punished in connection with the case. Nonetheless, basic questions remain, such as who killed Yin and how high does the corruption go.

Because wording in the sections of the report that have been released often gets vague, there has been speculation that further revelations may soon emerge.

"We haven't seen the end of this affair yet," said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a research organization. "More evidence will come out as people are prosecuted."