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"The Arms Control Association’s work is an important resource to legislators and policymakers when contemplating a new policy direction or decision."

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
U.S. Announces Taiwan Arms Deal

May 2000

By Wade Boese

Acting on the Pentagon's advice, the Clinton administration decided April 17 to supply Taiwan with advanced missiles and, eventually, a long-range radar for detecting ballistic missile launches, but shelved Taiwan's request for four advanced warships. The decision drew relatively little fire from China, which opposes all U.S. arms sales to the island, but evoked harsh criticism from Senate Republican leaders.

Always a sensitive issue, several factors further complicated this year's annual U.S. decision on Taiwan's arms requests. In February, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed pro-Taiwan legislation vehemently objected to by China, and Beijing announced a new condition under which China would resort to force to reunify Taiwan with the mainland. (See ACT, March 2000.) In March, Taiwan elected a long-time pro-independence advocate, Chen Shuibian, as president, and reports appeared that a classified Pentagon assessment concluded Taiwan's defenses are falling behind technologically.

Although the arms package remains officially undisclosed and will not be finalized until Taiwan decides on specific contracts, the Clinton administration reportedly authorized the export of the air-to-surface Maverick missile, the man-portable anti-tank Javelin missile, and the beyond-visual-range AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) to Taiwan, none of which have been previously sold to Taipei.

Linking Beijing's own arms acquisitions with what the United States supplies Taiwan, the AMRAAM, which is an advanced "fire-and-forget" missile, will not be shipped to Taiwan unless China adds a missile with similar capabilities to its arsenal. Taiwanese pilots, however, will receive AMRAAM training.

In addition, the administration agreed to provide Taiwan with a PAVE PAWS radar for detecting missile launches within China once Taiwan shows it can integrate the long-range radar into the island's early-warning systems and air and missile defenses. For now, the administration has agreed to supply software upgrades to extend the range of Taiwan's current radar systems. China has been deploying some 50 additional surface-to-surface missiles per year across from Taiwan.

The administration deferred Taiwan's most-publicized and controversial request for four destroyers equipped with the Aegis combat system, an advanced radar and battle management system capable of tracking some 100 targets simultaneously. Taiwanese requests for submarines and anti-submarine aircraft were also put off.

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Walter Slocombe said the administration will undertake a "comprehensive" study of Taiwan's naval requirements that will revisit the Aegis-equipped destroyers as a possible candidate system for the island's defense. Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon, speaking April 18, also left the door open on the warships, noting that Washington is committed under law to help Taiwan meet its defense needs, and that "the greater the threat posed by China, the greater Taiwan's defensive needs will be." The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act calls on the United States to supply Taiwan with weapons "sufficient" for its self-defense.

China, which had forcefully warned against supplying Taiwan with warships, reacted relatively mildly to the trimmed-down arms package, saying simply that it will add tension to cross-strait relations. Beijing, as it frequently does, urged Washington to abide by its pledges in the 1982 Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué not to "carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan" and not to sell weapons qualitatively or quantitatively exceeding those sold in years prior to 1982.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) blasted the administration April 18 for having "once again flagrantly violated the Taiwan Relations Act by giving Beijing a veto over Taiwan's defense requests." In a vitriolic statement the day before, Helms said the administration had "sunk to a new low" and that the weapons denials were "driven by knee-jerk appeasement."

Helms further stated that the "politicized handling of Taiwan's defense request" showed why Senate approval of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which passed the House of Representatives on February 1, is "so urgently needed." The Senate version of the act authorizes the president to make specific weapons systems available to Taiwan and mandates closer ties between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) also expressed disappointment with the decision not to supply the destroyers (which are built in Mississippi), submarines, and anti-submarine aircraft. Lott stated that the administration "should worry more about protecting and promoting Taiwan's democracy than offending the communist dictators in Beijing."

Unlike Helms, Lott did not suggest passing the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act to offset the administration's decision. Rather, Lott said he looks forward "to working with our next president to revitalize our alliances and strengthen deterrence in Asia."

The act, which the administration has indicated it would veto, is on the Senate calendar, but not scheduled for debate or a vote. Taiwanese leaders, including President-elect Chen, told Senator Frank Murkowski (R-AK) during an April visit to Taiwan that Senate consideration of the act should be delayed at least until Taiwan's May 20 presidential inauguration to avoid upsetting Beijing.

One congressional staffer suggested that "Lott may be reluctant to bring the bill to the floor when senior members of his own caucus have deep reservations about the bill." For example, in an April 12 speech, Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY), chairman of the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said enactment of the legislation would be a "grave mistake."

In addition, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) has threatened a filibuster if the bill is brought to the floor, thereby putting a "hold" on Senate action. Sixty votes are required to end a filibuster.