Reaction muted on arms sale to Taiwan

After loud warnings, decision by Bush gets mild response

China protests, Helms lauds

April 25, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As President Bush's decision on arms sales for Taiwan drew near this month, public appeals on the subject mounted in frequency and seeming alarm from both directions.

More than 80 members of Congress signed a letter urging the president to "recognize the legitimate need" for Taiwan to buy the sophisticated Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and accompanying Aegis radar system.

China warned against the Aegis deal, likening it to oil splashed on a spark that could explode into the "flame of war." Beijing later urged Bush to stop all arms sales to Taiwan, which it considers a renegade province.

But in a development that may provide cause for celebration at the White House, the aftermath of the decision on arms sales has not come close to matching its prelude.

After the Bush administration's disclosure Monday that it would defer the Aegis sale and instead offer Taiwan four older, less-advanced Kidd-class destroyers, the immediate reaction was muted on both sides.

Beijing said merely that it was "seriously concerned" and lodged a formal protest with the State Department.

Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, the conservative chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and perennial China hawk, praised Bush's decision and called it "the most significant defense package increase for Taiwan in at least nine years."

For the president, those may have been the sounds of political and diplomatic success.

By splitting the difference between China and its critics in Congress, Bush has thrown Beijing a bone while approving a Taiwan arms package that is formidable even without the Aegis system, foreign policy analysts said.

By deferring a decision on the Aegis sale instead of ruling it out, the president retains a sizable bargaining chip with which to try to influence Beijing's behavior.

"I think they handled it very well," said Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official and director of studies for the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "It's a sensible compromise that everybody can live with."

Taiwanese military officials were officially notified yesterday of Bush's decision by a delegation of Pentagon officials in a meeting at the National Defense University in Washington.

Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman discussed the package in a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi, who lodged what U.S. officials described as a formal protest.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said the Chinese government was "seriously concerned" and "strongly opposed" to the U.S. arms sale plan, which includes 12 P-3 sub-hunter aircraft and assistance to Taiwan in the purchase of eight diesel-powered submarines.

"Washington must exercise prudence on the question of arms sales to Taiwan, so as not to create new harm for relations," Zhang said.

Despite the negative tone, the statements from Beijing were fairly restrained, China analysts said.

"Their main statement is that they have serious concerns," said Mark T. Fung, assistant director of China studies at the Nixon Center in Washington. "But in diplomatic lingo, that's sort of a breath of relief. It's not as vitriolic as if some other package had gone through."

No fewer than three delegations from Beijing visited Washington in the early weeks of Bush's term to try to dissuade his administration from approving the Aegis system, which would have allowed Taiwan to track more than 100 planes, ships, missiles and other targets simultaneously.

By saying no on the Aegis, at least for now, Bush allows Chinese President Jiang Zemin to claim a foreign policy success.

"It helps China's moderate leadership remain intact," said Fung. "If the Aegis had gone through, the hawks in the Chinese government and military could have said, `We were right all along. Let's ramp up our defense spending.'"

But the package Bush did approve seemed to satisfy many in Congress who had pressed for Aegis approval.

The fact that the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers wouldn't be ready for at least eight years removed some of the sense of urgency in Congress, analysts said. And doubts at the Pentagon about whether Taiwan's navy is sophisticated enough to deploy the system made Bush's decision more palatable on Capitol Hill.

"Basically, Bush is golden on the Hill," said Michael O'Hanlon, an Asia security analyst at the Brookings Institution. "You are going to have five or six people who are livid, but the bottom line is that if George Bush's biggest problem is that he can't rein in five or six far-right conservatives, that's not much to worry about."

In reaching the decision, Bush had to account not only for Republican hard-liners in Congress but pro-business GOP members who are wary of antagonizing Beijing. The recent air collision between a U.S. spy plane and Chinese fighter jet and Beijing's detention of 24 Americans added to pressure on Bush to take a hard line.

Valued at more than $4 billion, the sale of military hardware approved by Bush would give Taiwan a system of air, surface and submarine weapons with which to fend off an invasion or blockade by the mainland.

China has a few aging destroyers and no submarines.

The arms package would be the most robust for Taiwan since Bush's father approved the sale of 150 F-16 jet fighters in 1992.

Helms lauded Bush's decision, though he said that a sale of the Aegis system "is also justified."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican and staunch China critic, said Bush "should have done more," but said the president "certainly showed more moxie than President Clinton."

Some Republicans raised concerns about whether Taiwan would ever obtain the diesel submarines approved in Bush's package. No U.S. shipyard has built a diesel sub in decades, and the plan is to buy submarine hulls overseas and have a U.S. contractor outfit them for Taipei.

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