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US says arms package influenced by China missiles

Tuesday, April 24, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP)--Reacting to grumbling from Beijing, the White House said Tuesday that the new U.S. arms package for Taiwan was spurred, in part, by the 300 Chinese missiles aimed at the disputed island across the Taiwan Straits.

A Pentagon delegation led by a deputy assistant secretary informed Taiwanese officials of U.S. President George W. Bush's decision Tuesday at the National Defense University. The president is offering a variety of military equipment, including submarines, to face off a Chinese threat, while deferring sales of the item Taiwan wants most: high-tech U.S. destroyers equipped with the Aegis combat radar system.

"The presence of Chinese missiles across the strait is a reflection of what Taiwan faces and a factor the United States considers in determining what Taiwan's defense needs are," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue advised the Bush administration to "exercise prudence" and she warned of "new harm for relations" with the U.S.

Arms sales to Taiwan will "seriously undermine China's sovereignty, interfere in China's internal affairs and will give rise to tension across the Taiwan Straits," she said.

The sale of the Aegis to Taiwan, which China considers a rebellious province, could worsen U.S.-Chinese relations already strained by the collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese jet that led to the 11-day detention of 24 U.S. military personnel. China still holds the U.S. aircraft.

US Doesn't Rule Out Aegis Sale In The Future

The White House took pains to assuage Beijing's concerns about the arms package. But the White House also made clear that future sales to Taiwan of the state-of-the-art Aegis system still were possible given China's recent arms buildup.

"We think there is nothing in this package for China to fear," said a senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official added that China could decrease the chances of Taiwan getting the Aegis system if Beijing becomes less aggressive militarily.

Fleischer suggested as much on Tuesday: "The best way to address this issue ... is for China to take fewer actions rather than more in terms of its military presence across the straits from Taiwan, so there is less of a threat to Taiwan."

Bush approved the sale of four Kidd-class destroyers, which have a much less potent ship-borne radar system than the Aegis, up to eight diesel submarines, 12 P-3 anti-submarine aircraft, various helicopters, assault vehicles and other arms, the senior White House official said.

Taiwan won't be able to buy some things it wanted, including JDAMS, or satellite-guided bombs, and Highspeed Anti-Radar Missiles, which are fired from aircraft.

Along with the Aegis, the administration deferred sales of Apache helicopters and tanks requested by Taiwan.

The Kidd-class system could be available by 2003, providing more immediate defense than the Aegis system, which would take until 2010 to build. The White House said Taiwan's military isn't currently equipped to handle the Aegis system, but noted it would still be available in 2010 if Bush decided at a later point to offer it.

Bush's decision on the Aegis drew a mixed reaction in Congress.

Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, praised the Bush decision, calling it "the most significant defense package for Taiwan in at least nine years." But he said he still believed "that the sale of Aegis destroyers is also justified in light of the outrageous actions of the leaders in Beijing"

House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said that because of the "sizable buildup of military force" in China he had "serious questions regarding the Bush administration's decision" not to provide Aegis-equipped destroyers.

And hard-line China critic Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said, "President Bush has certainly shown more moxie than President Clinton, but I think he should have done more."

Kidd-Class Ships Originally Built For Shah Of Iran

By selling Taiwan the Aegis system, "symbolically we would have been telling the mainland Chinese and everyone else in Asia that we're making our own decisions and we're not intimidated," Rohrabacher said.

Rohrabacher applauded Bush for being willing to sell submarines to Taiwan.

"The submarine forces are defensive in nature," Rohrabacher said, "and their presence in the waters off of Taiwan will deter a communist Chinese invasion."

China long has considered submarines offensive weapons. That view has prompted past U.S. administrations to prevent their sale under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which limits sales to "defense articles and defense services."

The Kidd-class destroyers were the only four of the class constructed. They were originally built for the shah of Iran in the 1970s but became part of the U.S. Navy when he was overthrown before delivery.