WASHINGTON - Backing off from an option that could have irritated U.S.-China relations beyond their already tender state, President Bush has decided not to sell the sophisticated Aegis radar system and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to Taiwan, congressional and administration officials said last night.
Instead, Bush has opted to sell Taiwan up to four less-advanced Kidd-class destroyers, which are not equipped to carry the Aegis, officials said. The president will also sell Taiwan up to 12 P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft and help it to purchase up to eight diesel submarines.
Those armaments would constitute one of the most robust U.S. weapons packages for Taiwan in years and are sure to prompt harsh criticism from Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province.
But China had been most concerned about Taiwan's Aegis request, and Bush's decision to leave the high-tech battle management system out of this year's deal may mollify Beijing somewhat, foreign policy analysts have said.
The decision will also anger some congressional conservatives who are dismayed by what they view as increasingly hostile behavior by Beijing toward Taiwan and the United States.
U.S.-China relations have been strained since the collision between a Navy spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter over the South China Sea on April 1. The Chinese fighter was lost, and the U.S. aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing on Chinese soil, where its crew was held for 11 days. China still has the plane.
The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 requires Washington to provide Taiwan with enough hardware and know-how to defend itself.
Now that Washington has determined the maximum size of this year's arms package, Taipei must formally notify the administration about how much it wants to buy. Analysts expect Taiwan to purchase most - perhaps all - of the approved items.
Bush has not ruled out future sales to Taiwan of Aegis-equipped Burke destroyers, an administration official said.
"We've deferred that sale, but the president wanted to keep open the possibility of providing it in the future after considering the evolving security situation and [China's] air threat to Taiwan," the official said.
The Kidd-class destroyers, which would be delivered in 2003, carry a less-sophisticated radar system than the Aegis but nonetheless would represent a significant upgrade for Taiwan, which fears an air and sea attack from the mainland.
Beijing had repeatedly objected to a potential Aegis sale partly because the system might neutralize China's offensive missiles and because of worries that the system would be linked to a U.S. missile defense.
Last month, Chinese leaders repeatedly warned Washington not to supply the Aegis to Taiwan, implying that almost anything less would be a huge improvement. But in the wake of the spy-plane standoff, Beijing has said that any U.S. weapons sale to Taipei would be objectionable.
In addition to supplying Taiwan with submarines, destroyers and anti-sub aircraft, the administration has agreed to give Taiwanese officials a technical briefing on the PAC-3 advanced Patriot antimissile software but has not agreed to provide the system. Supplying the PAC-3 to Taiwan would require a formal request later from Taipei, administration officials said.
Besides an all-out invasion by China, Taiwan's military is concerned about countering a sea and air blockade, and this year's weapons package is intended to boost its ability to do so.
Having its own small fleet of submarines would enable Taipei to slip more easily past patrolling Chinese warships, and the P3 Orions would counter Beijing's own sub-surface power. Electronics aboard the Kidd-class destroyers would help coordinate the battle theater.
Approval of this year's package "is conditional on Taiwan investing to develop an integrated approach to anti-submarine warfare," said an administration official.
While the United States doesn't make diesel-powered submarines, "if Taiwan comes back and says, `Yes, we want to buy submarines,' then we'll figure out where the submarines come from," the official said.
The administration was scheduled to notify Taiwan of its decision in meetings today at the Pentagon. Key members of Congress were briefed on it yesterday afternoon.
Sen. Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican who is chairman of the Senate East Asian and Pacific subcommittee, told the Associated Press that the arms sales "will be a robust package, I believe. But I don't think they're going to go all out to try to make the tension higher" with an Aegis sale.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer played down the prospect that U.S.-China relations could be further aggravated by Bush's decision. He called the review "an annual event," but he added, "Of course, the president's going to consider all factors that go into Taiwan's defense needs."
While Bush didn't make the final decision on Taipei's arms package until the past few days, administration and Taiwanese officials had telegraphed the move in recent weeks by raising questions about whether Taiwan's military possessed the know-how to operate the extremely complex Aegis setup.
The Burke-class destroyers providing the platform for the Aegis system would not be available for at least six years.
That long timetable gives the administration additional cover against conservatives in Congress who demanded approval of the Aegis-Burke combination this year. By supplying Kidd-class ships by 2003 and deferring but not ruling out later Burke-class sales, Bush can provide for Taiwan's immediate defense needs, sidestep a diplomatic pothole and leave open the possibility of a harsher stance toward Beijing later.
Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.