Taiwan willing to forgo U.S. weapons system

Official acknowledges Aegis sale could roil relations with China

April 14, 2001|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

TAIPEI, Taiwan - Taiwan's foreign minister said yesterday that Taipei could accept a Bush administration decision not to sell the island warships equipped with the sophisticated Aegis weapons system.

"It isn't the end of the world" if Washington decides not to include the Aegis system, which can detect and track more than 100 missiles, aircraft, surface vessels or submarines at a time, in the package of weapons it sells Taiwan, Tien Hung-mao said in an interview.

"Aegis has been singled out as the weapon Taiwan has to have. Certainly we want to maximize acquisition at this time. But we recognize the U.S. may not agree to the entire package," Tien said. "We are willing to give the new administration the benefit of the doubt. They will do their best to satisfy our need at this time."

Tien's remarks are likely to relieve some of the pressure on the Bush administration to sell Aegis-equipped Burke-class destroyers to Taiwan.

Republican hawks argue that arming Taiwan with the Aegis system, a move China strongly opposes, would signal U.S. resolve to Beijing and the rest of Asia after the administration's carefully worded regrets for the April 1 collision between a Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese jet fighter.

Tien, however, acknowledged that a decision to sell the Aegis system "could trigger a very severe negative reaction" by China, and he said the Taiwanese government would understand if the administration balks out of concern about how Beijing would respond.

"The U.S. administration has to take that into account," he said. "They know the risks; they understand the situation and how the Chinese might react. If it doesn't happen, it isn't the end of the world. In terms of our total security needs, it's not just one weapon" that guarantees Taiwan's security.

"Maintaining very friendly relations with the United States government is very important for us," Tien said, adding that damaging the relationship over one weapon system is not sensible. "We believe that strong help and American concern for Taiwan's security is as important as having those weapons," he said, because Taipei would expect U.S. assistance should China ever attack the island, which it calls a renegade province.

Tien also made it clear that his government would be comfortable with less than a full basket of weaponry this year because Taiwan expects to have warms ties with the Bush administration.

Washington is expected to announce its decision April 24.

If Taiwan doesn't get everything it wants from Washington, it has few other options. Because few nations want to incur China's wrath by selling military hardware to the island, the United States and France are Taipei's only major sources. Taiwan produces its own long-range missiles and jet fighters.

Taiwan's defense establishment believes China has learned the lessons of the high-tech battles in Kosovo and the Persian Gulf. Soon, it says, China will be able to use its growing arsenal of missiles to knock out Taiwanese command, control, communications and computer systems before Taipei or the United States can respond.

"It's quite possible that the first battle would be the end of the war," said a Taiwanese military strategist.

The Aegis system, these analysts believe, could deter China from launching such a first strike. Because it's mobile and can track more than 100 targets simultaneously, the Aegis also could serve as a backup military command and control system if Taiwan's main system were destroyed.

Skeptics say the destroyers with the Aegis system, at $1 billion per ship, are too costly for a Taiwanese government whose annual defense budget is less than $10 billion. Even if it were approved this month, the system would not be available for eight years.

Michael Swaine, a China analyst at the RAND Corp., said Taiwan's defense needs would be better served if the island bought less-sophisticated Kidd-class destroyers at a fraction of the price.

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