WASHINGTON - Taiwan's plea for destroyers, upgraded defensive missiles and a sophisticated radar system is again putting the United States on the spot, forcing President Bush to choose between enraging China by saying "yes" and angering congressional Republicans with a "no."
Walking the Taiwan arms-request tightrope is an annual affair for Washington, but the prelude to this year's decision promises to be especially contentious as advocates on both sides of the issue see an opportunity to mold the administration's still-developing China policy.
The debate, which may heat up following yesterday's classified briefing for Congress on Taipei's weapons shopping list, occurs as China continues to upgrade its military and threaten what some see as a vulnerable Taiwan. At the same time, Beijing seeks stronger commercial ties with both Taipei and Washington.
China regards sales of weapons to Taiwan, which it considers a rebel province, as unacceptable meddling in Chinese affairs. As a result, it has dispatched two delegations to Washington in recent weeks to lobby against an upgrading of the Taiwanese arsenal.
Beijing's top foreign policy official, Vice Premier Qian Qichen, is expected to deliver the same message to Bush next week at the White House. China argues that acceding to Taiwan's request for Arleigh Burke-class destroyers equipped with high-tech Aegis radar systems would destabilize the region and give Taipei the confidence to declare independence from the mainland.
"Taiwan is part of China, and it's none of your business," Sha Zhukang, head of arms control in China's Foreign Ministry, said at a news briefing this week. "Arms sales to a part of a country is wrong."
Sha's comments came as he indicated a willingness to discuss Bush's planned national missile defense even as he assailed it, a reflection of the unsettled state of U.S.-China relations.
Bush has said he will give Taiwan the ability to defend itself but has not been more specific. Administration officials said they have only begun to review Taiwan's weapons request.
The Chinese are most concerned by Taiwan's request to buy the Aegis radar system, which can track more than 100 planes, submarines, missiles and surface vessels simultaneously. An Aegis-equipped Taiwan, Chinese officials said, could be integrated into a worldwide, U.S.-operated missile defense, giving Washington a permanent early-warning station only 100 miles off China's coast.
"Of the arms they have proposed to sell to Taiwan, Aegis is the worst," Sha said.
Proponents of a stronger Taiwan believe Washington should move quickly to boost the ability of the emerging island democracy to protect itself from the authoritarian mainland government. The administration is expected to decide the components of its arms package by the end of April.
The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act requires the United States to provide "sufficient" capability for Taiwan to defend itself, but that term is open to wide variances in interpretation.
China, although a nuclear power boasting a huge army, is far behind the United States in military spending and technology.
But Taiwan and its U.S. backers, led by Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, argue that Beijing's defense budget increases in recent years and its upgrading of offensive systems on the Taiwan Straits require a substantial response from Washington.
Last week, China announced that it would boost military spending this year by almost 18 percent, to $17 billion. Many U.S. analysts believe the true amount of China's defense spending - and perhaps this year's increase - is much higher.
Even so, by all accounts China's defense budget is far lower than the $300 billion the United States devotes to military spending. Taiwan's defense budget is about $13 billion.
"Though it once may have made strategic sense, current U.S. policy toward Taiwan is outdated, dangerous and should not make Americans proud," says a March 8 memo prepared for the Foreign Relations Committee by Helms aide James Doran. "Taiwan's military is confronted with a host of needs to counter [Beijing's] military buildup and increasingly hostile posture."
Especially worrying to Taiwan is the continuing buildup of missiles across the straits and a Chinese policy paper issued last year that said refusal by Taiwan to start reunification talks could be grounds for war.
A spokesman for Taiwan's Washington office declined to comment, saying his government had agreed with administration officials not to talk publicly about the weapons requests.
Taiwan has reportedly asked for upgraded Patriot antimissile missiles as well as for four Burke-class destroyers equipped with the Aegis battle management system. Because the Burkes would take several years to deliver, Taiwan also wants to buy used, less powerful Kidd-class U.S. destroyers in the meantime.