Bush Is Offering the Taiwanese Some Arms, but Not the Best
April 24, 2001
By David E. Sanger
WASHINGTON, April 23 President Bush has decided to offer Taiwan a range of advanced weapons, including eight diesel submarines and four guided-missile destroyers that China has long sought to block, but he has declined, at least for now, to sell the Taiwanese a far more sophisticated class of ships whose advanced radar systems could counter China's growing military power.
Mr. Bush's decision, described tonight by senior White House officials, takes the diplomatically cautious path advocated by advisers inside and outside the administration who have warned the president about the dangers of a further escalation of tensions with Beijing. But the list of older yet sophisticated arms that Mr. Bush will tell Taiwan it is free to purchase includes aircraft, helicopters, torpedos and anti- ship missiles that could vastly improve Taiwan's navy.
"The only consideration here was the threat that Taiwan faces," a senior administration official said tonight, as White House aides began informing members of Congress about the decision, which will be officially conveyed to Taiwanese officials in a meeting with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday.
"There was no link to the EP-3E incident," a senior administration official said, referring to the 11-day detention of the crew of an American spy plane. China is still holding the plane on Hainan island, where it made an emergency landing on April 1, leading to Mr. Bush's first confrontation with the Chinese leadership.
That confrontation has intensified the scrutiny of Mr. Bush's first decision on what kind of arms to sell the new, democratically elected government on Taiwan. But in the end, Mr. Bush chose to send a mixed signal to Beijing. Though the sale of some weapons will undoubtedly irritate China, Mr. Bush's decision to defer the sale of destroyers that use the advanced Aegis radar defense system appears to be part of an effort to prevent the outbreak of an arms race between China and the island that it regards as a renegade province.
[China on Tuesday denounced U.S. plans to sell weapons to Taiwan, warning the decision could exacerbate already strained ties with the United States, the Associated Press reported. ``Washington must exercise prudence on the question of arms sales to Taiwan so as not to create new harm for relations,'' Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said at a news conference.]
Taiwan may end up buying less than it is offered, and must now begin the process of deciding how much of the American package it can afford.
Mr. Bush's decision conforms almost exactly to the recommendation made to him last week by a team of senior deputies in the Defense and State Departments. Mr. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell agreed with their conclusions, the senior official said, adding that "the only real debate was how to word the deferral" of the sale of the Aegis system.
Taiwanese officials will be told on Tuesday that they may be permitted to purchase the system in the future, if China continues building up its ability to threaten Taiwan with air and submarine forces. A study conducted by the administration in preparation for the decision concluded that by 2005, China could have more than 60 submarines, including four quiet-running diesel submarines with advanced weapons it recently purchased from Russia.
"We are going to leave open all possibilities in case there is an assessment in the future that the threat has worsened," the official said.
[In Taiwan, news of the administration's decision came early Tuesday morning on the state-run Central News Agency. There was no immediate response from Taiwan's government, as President Chen Shui-bian had ordered his officials to keep silent after the foreign minister was quoted in a recent interview as saying Taiwan could live without the Aegis technology.]
Past American presidents have declined to sell diesel submarines to Taiwan for fear they would be considered offensive weapons by China, violating the spirit, if not the letter, of Washington's understandings with Beijing. But after extensive discussion with his aides on Friday, and in continuing talks during his trip to Quebec over the weekend, Mr. Bush was convinced that Taiwan needed a more up-to-date submarine capability to defend against China's expanding sea power. Left unchecked, his advisers say, China's growing naval and air power eventually could empower it to threaten Taiwan with an economic blockade.
Still, Mr. Bush's decision is bound to anger many conservatives in his party, who had hoped that his election would result in far more aggressive support for Taiwan, and a far tougher stance against China's rapid military expansion. But ever since word of the deputies' recommendation leaked out last week, the White House and leading Republicans have been trying to tamp down any internal dissent.
In their briefings on Capitol Hill today, for example, administration officials pointed out that the sale of eight submarines which will have to be produced by German or Dutch manufacturers because the United States no longer makes diesel- powered subs were part of a broader new defense strategy for Taiwan.
The submarine sale is conditioned on Taiwan's agreement to buy P-3C submarine-hunting aircraft as part of what a senior official called a "layered, integrated approach to antisubmarine warfare." The four Kidd-class destroyers technology use technology that is two decades old. But the ships Taiwan will receive are mothballed models that the Navy is no longer using, meaning they can be up and running in just two years.
"It seemed to us," one of Mr. Bush's advisers said tonight, "that getting them a good system fast was more important than getting them the best system very slowly."
Nonetheless, some conservative Republicans expressed disappointment tonight at the administration's decision.
"George W. has shown a lot more moxie than Clinton, but he hasn't gone as far as some us would have liked," Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican on the House International Relations Committee, said in a telephone interview.
But several influential Senate Republicans praised the administration's decision as striking the right balance between fulfilling American obligations to provide for Taiwan's defense and not inflaming tensions with China.
Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of China's harshest critics, issued a statement tonight praising Mr. Bush for "taking the critical matter of Taiwan's defense seriously." But he added that he was "unalterably persuaded that the sale of Aegis destroyers is also justified in light of the outrageous actions of the leaders in Beijing."
Senator John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican who heads the Armed Services Committee, said, for instance, that the Kidd-class destroyers represented "a significant incremental enhancement of Taiwan's navy; it allows them to learn to train with a larger ship."
Mr. Warner said he had recommended deferring for a year any decision on selling Taiwan the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which are equipped with the Aegis radar system.
Last month, before the collision over the South China Sea, administration officials hinted to a few members of Congress that Taiwan was unlikely to get the Aegis system, but would be offered a long shopping list of other arms. Like past presidents, Mr. Bush will cast these arms as defensive in nature, though many could also be used for offensive purposes.
By all accounts, Mr. Bush and his aides did not revisit that decision after the collision and the standoff over the fate of the spy plane's 24 crew members. But the incident certainly affected the environment in which he had to make his final decision. One wing of his party the "engagement" wing that urges closer business ties with China to moderate its behavior urged Mr. Bush to use the sale to send a conciliatory message to Beijing. Conservatives urged just the opposite.
"It makes no sense to let one incident like that determine your China policy," one administration aide deeply involved in the decision said last week. "That would be crazy." But he added that "we've gotten a lot of free advice," he said, mostly from conservative Republicans, "to do exactly that."
Administration officials offered several reasons for deferring the Aegis sale. The first was the most practical: The system cannot be delivered and fielded by Taiwan until 2010, meaning that China would have plenty of time to build up its air and missile ability to overwhelm it.
There was also concern that Taiwan's military was not yet skilled enough to make use of the system.
Moreover, aides concluded that much could be done to strengthen Taiwan's defenses without selling the high-profile Aegis.