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Pentagon Announces Plans to Sell Radars to Taiwan

Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2004

The Pentagon announced plans yesterday to sell Taiwan two long-range early-warning radars and associated equipment totaling nearly $1.8 billion in cost as part of an effort to bolster the island's defenses in the face of a Chinese missile buildup.

The proposed sale risks angering China, especially against the backdrop of renewed tensions between China and Taiwan over the reelection on March 20 of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, who Monday called his narrow victory a mandate to press ahead toward formal independence. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and argues that U.S. arms sales embolden independence activists there.

But U.S. officials characterized the deal as a purely defensive measure and noted that it has been in the works for several years.

"China doesn't like any arms sales to Taiwan," said a State Department official who specializes in Asian affairs. "But you can't get more defensive than this."

The ultra-high-frequency radars would enable Taiwan to detect Chinese missile launches earlier, providing more warning time. Eventually, if Taiwan obtains a more sophisticated missile defense system beyond its older-model Patriot batteries, the radars could be incorporated and play a tactical role, officials said. But, initially, the State Department official said, the radars would be "essentially a civil defense tool."

U.S. and Taiwanese authorities have been looking at ways of strengthening Taiwan's defenses since 1996, when China fired missiles into the waters off Taiwan. The radar sale was approved in principle in 1999 by the Clinton administration. It has taken five years to be completed while Taiwanese authorities weighed its cost and explored alternatives.

More than $20 billion in other arms sales approved by the Bush administration for Taiwan have also shown little movement. One problem has been Taiwan's defense budget, which has shrunk over the past decade as a share of total government spending. But in November, the defense committee of Taiwan's parliament gave the go-ahead for the long-range radars.

"It's a positive sign that they're going to fund this program," said a Pentagon official who follows Asian affairs. "It shows a willingness to do something about the increasing missile threat from China."

In its most recent annual assessment of the Chinese military, published last July, the Pentagon said that China had accelerated the production of short-range ballistic missiles not only to hold Taiwan at peril but also "to complicate United States intervention in a Taiwan Strait conflict." The report said China had deployed about 450 short-range ballistic missiles within striking distance of Taiwan and would likely expand that force by 75 missiles a year for the next few years. China was also said to be developing a version of the missile that could hit Japanese or U.S. forces as far away as Okinawa.

The planned sale of the U.S. radars "will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security and defensive capability of the recipient, which has been and continues to be an important force for economic progress in the Far East," the Pentagon's Defense Security and Cooperation Agency said in a statement yesterday. Congress was notified on Tuesday about the proposed deal, the statement added.

Raytheon Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. are the two largest U.S. companies expected to bid for the project, the statement said.