Clinton sends another carrier-led task force Biggest U.S. Navy group in Asia since Vietnam era packs aircraft, missiles

March 12, 1996|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton yesterday ordered a second Navy carrier-led battle group to the Western Pacific as tensions mounted over China's decision to conduct war games with live ammunition, as well as missile tests, close to Taiwan.

U.S. officials said the naval actions are intended to counter Beijing's efforts to intimidate Taiwanese from voting March 23 for President Lee Teng-hui, who China perceives as being pro-independent, and to deter any surprise attack by China.

But even as the largest U.S. armada in the region since the Vietnam era was being assembled, Defense Secretary William J. Perry stressed that the administration was not expecting any military conflict.

"This is precautionary," Mr. Perry said during a trip to Chile. Officials in Washington also tried to lower the alarm stirred up by the confrontation.

"We are not interested, frankly, in doing anything that would exacerbate the tensions," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman.

"We don't believe an attack [on Taiwan by China] is imminent," Mr. Burns added. "It's clear to us that the Chinese government understands the magnitude and the impact that any kind of attack would have on China's relations with the rest of the world."

U.S. officials say they believe Beijing would not risk its international trade links, which help fuel its economic expansion, or its diplomatic openings to the West.

The nuclear-powered carrier USS Nimitz is to sail from the Persian Gulf for Taiwan, arriving next week. It will be accompanied by a cruiser, two destroyers, a frigate, an oiler, an ammunition ship and a nuclear attack submarine.

The Nimitz will join the carrier USS Independence and its group, which was ordered yesterday to move closer to Taiwan. The show of U.S. naval force includes more than 100 fighter and attack jets and 200 cruise missiles.

"That's a pretty big punch," said a senior Pentagon official who asked not to be named. "We are sending a loud and clear message to the neighborhood that you need not be bullied. We are just letting them know intimidation will not be part of this game."

The dispatch of the Nimitz battle group coincided with the extension of the area of the Taiwan Strait affected by the Chinese missile tests and Beijing's decision to use live ammunition in its off-shore military exercises.

"These are international waters, and they lie in an area of great strategic interest for the United States," Mr. Burns said. "Every country that is a seafaring country has the right of innocent passage in these waters."

Of three missiles China fired Friday, one may have entered Taiwan's airspace, according to Sen. Frank H. Murkowski, an Alaska Republican. Quoting an intelligence briefer, he said the missile passed over Taiwanese territory on its way to its target.

Defense officials said the missile firings were all tracked by the Aegis cruiser USS Bunker Hill. They would not confirm Senator Murkowski's assertion that a missile had penetrated Taiwanese territory.

"I don't think any country, much less China, can be assured of the accuracy of its missiles when they are tested," Mr. Burns said. "We do not believe it is prudent to conduct test firing so close to the shores of a country where 21 million people are living."

"We do not want to see China intimidate the people of Taiwan away from the democratic principles that now seem to be taking root in Taiwan."

The decision to strengthen the U.S. military presence drew quick bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

"I support sending a strong signal to China," said Sen. Bob Dole, the Senate Majority Leader. "In a sense, they may be testing the president."

"We need to send as strong and clear a message as we can that activity [such as missile tests] is not acceptable," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle.

The United States is not treaty-bound to go to Taiwan's defense. But the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act makes it clear that Washington's diplomatic relationship with China "rests upon" the future of Taiwan being determined peacefully. It also warns that anything but a peaceful resolution to the issue would be "of grave concern" to the United States, which is committed to providing Taiwan with defensive weapons.

Administration officials declined to say exactly what action would trigger a U.S. military response. But Douglas Paal, who advised President George Bush on China, said that any attempt by Beijing to close Taiwan's trade routes would put President Clinton under "tremendous pressure to break the blockade."

"China has pushed the envelope right to the breaking point," he said. Still, he credited Beijing with making a cool calculation of its interests and not letting the crisis spin out of control.

Pub Date: 3/12/96

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