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Bush Approves Major Arms Deal To Taiwan, Defers Aegis Sale

Wade Boese

On April 24, President George W. Bush authorized the sale of a major package of arms to Taiwan, including destroyers, diesel-powered submarines, and anti-submarine aircraft, but he deferred Taipei's request for U.S. destroyers equipped with the advanced Aegis combat system. Striving to further show his strong support for Taiwan, the president stated the following day that the United States would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack, abandoning the ambiguity that typically cloaks Washington's response to how it would handle such a scenario.

Always attracting attention, the annual decision on what weapons to offer Taiwan elicited even greater scrutiny this year because of strained relations between Washington and Beijing following the April 1 collision of a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter. After this year's arms package became public, Bush told The Washington Post that he will drop the annual process in favor of considering Taiwanese arms requests on an "as-needed basis," apparently hoping to lessen the spectacle surrounding the decision each year.

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said April 24 that the "heart of the [weapons] package" offered by the Bush administration to Taiwan is four Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, eight diesel-powered submarines, and a dozen P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft. Torpedoes, artillery systems, and naval anti-mine helicopters, among other weaponry, were also reportedly put on the table for Taiwan, which will now decide over the coming months on what arms it will officially request to buy.

Bush opted against including more-advanced Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers equipped with the Aegis combat system in the arms package, though administration officials indicated that the system might be made available in the future. Described by the U.S. Navy as a "total weapon system, from detection to kill," the Aegis combat system can detect and track more than 100 targets simultaneously while also directing the ship's weapons to counter incoming air, surface, and submarine threats. China is opposed to all arms sales to Taiwan, but it had warned specifically against the potential sale of the Aegis-equipped destroyer because of concerns about its advanced capabilities, including the possibility that it could be used as a platform for future missile defenses.

By not ruling out the future option of transferring Aegis-equipped destroyers, Bush appeared to be signaling to China that its actions could influence what weapon systems his administration makes available to Taiwan in the coming years. Washington has increasingly spoken out against Beijing's growing deployment of ballistic missiles across from Taiwan.

Discussing the possible deals on April 24, Pentagon spokesman Craig Quigley implied that the decision not to offer the more advanced destroyers reflected U.S. concerns about providing Taiwan with weapons systems it could make use of more quickly. In congressional testimony in March, Admiral Dennis Blair, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, noted that the decommissioned Kidd-class destroyers, originally built for the Shah of Iran before he was toppled from power, could be ready for Taiwan within roughly two years, whereas the Aegis-equipped destroyers would not be available until around 2008 or later.

In making arms offers, Quigley explained that "you try to make your decision based on what a country or an entity can effectively use." He added that the Aegis system is "demanding" and could require so much attention and resources that other military elements could "atrophy."

Quigley described the prospective arms package as "robust" and geared toward "sea control and an anti-submarine warfare capability." A Pentagon report released last June warned that China's numerical superiority in submarines constituted a "threat" to Taiwan's navy and that Taipei would probably have an "extremely difficult time opposing a naval blockade with its existing resources." Taiwan currently has four submarines, two of which are considered obsolete, while China has approximately 60, though only about 10 of them are modern.

The Clinton administration declined to sell submarines to Taiwan, considering them to be offensive rather than defensive weapons. Though committing itself to provide Taiwan with the arms necessary to "maintain a sufficient self-defense capability" in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Washington has also sought to avoid providing Taipei with weapons that it could use offensively and thereby provoke a Chinese attack.

The United States does not currently operate or produce diesel-powered submarines, making how it will sell them to Taiwan unclear. Litton Ingalls, the U.S. shipbuilder that built the U.S. Navy's last conventional submarine in 1959, currently plans to build two conventional submarines for Egypt using a Dutch design. When asked on April 24 how the United States would supply Taiwan with submarines, Quigley noted that "a variety of good diesel electric submarine designs" exist and singled out Dutch and German plans, though he admitted no "advance prep work" had been done as far as he knew.

A Dutch Foreign Ministry official interviewed April 25 said Amsterdam would not participate in providing submarines to Taiwan, explaining that Dutch policy since 1984 has been not to supply arms to either Taiwan or China. Likewise, a German government official interviewed the same day said Berlin would also decline a U.S. request regarding submarines for Taiwan, citing Germany's "one-China policy" (shared by the United States), which recognizes that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China. The official also cited Germany's policy not to export arms to areas of tension. Both officials pointed out that Washington had yet to speak with their governments about the issue.

A Pentagon spokesperson interviewed April 26 downplayed the Dutch and German responses, saying there is not a "finite way" to approach the issue and expressing confidence that "where there is a will there is a way." Fleischer assured reporters at the April 24 White House briefing that the United States would not have offered submarines to Taiwan "if we didn't believe that we had the means to secure their production."

The United States is also not currently building the P-3C Orion aircraft. U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin last built eight of the anti-submarine planes for South Korea in 1995. A Lockheed Martin official noted that the company had needed to restart the production line for the South Korean order, so building more aircraft would be possible. But, he added, "We have not been asked to do anything yet."

Although the proposed package did not include the Aegis-equipped destroyers, it is being touted as the biggest U.S. arms deal for Taiwan since 1992, when the elder George Bush authorized the sale of 150 F-16 fighter aircraft to the island.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned on April 24 that the possible delivery of the proposed weapons would be a "violent infringement upon China's sovereignty and blatant interference in China's internal affairs." The spokesperson further complained that the proposed deals would violate the 1982 Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué, which states that the United States will not "carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan" and will not increase the quality or quantity of arms it delivers to Taiwan.

 

Bush on Defending Taiwan

In an interview aired on ABC on April 25, Bush said he felt the United States has an obligation to defend Taiwan if it is attacked by China. When asked whether this would include a U.S. military response, Bush answered, "Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend theirself." Questioned later by the Associated Press, Bush asserted twice that a U.S. military response was "certainly an option" in such a case.

The United States does not have a treaty responsibility to militarily defend Taiwan. Previous U.S. administrations have deliberately remained vague about a U.S. response to a Chinese attack on Taiwan, and none have ever explicitly stated the United States would send U.S. forces to defend the island. The Taiwan Relations Act emphasizes the necessity of peaceful relations between China and Taiwan, warning that any non-peaceful effort to resolve the future of Taiwan would be of "grave concern" to the United States. China contends it will resort to force only if Taiwan declares independence, is occupied by a foreign power, or indefinitely delays negotiating reunification.

In another interview with CNN that same day, Bush did not refer to a U.S. military option, but said the United States "will do what it takes to help Taiwan defend herself." Reaffirming that the United States will still adhere to the one-China policy, Bush also counseled Taiwan against declaring independence, saying that "we will work with Taiwan to make sure that that doesn't happen." He further stated that "nothing has really changed in policy." State Department spokesman Philip Reeker echoed the president, stating, "Our policy hasn't changed today."

On April 26, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson described Bush's ABC remarks as "erroneous" and said they demonstrated that the United States has "drifted further on the dangerous road." The spokesperson also reiterated the closely-held Chinese belief that Taiwan is the "most important and sensitive issue" between the United States and China.