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Taiwan Arms Deal Excludes Warships

By Thomas E. Ricks and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday , April 18, 2000 ; A01

President Clinton decided yesterday to sell a package of high-tech weapons to Taiwan, but followed a Pentagon recommendation to put off the politically volatile sale of four Aegis destroyers, officials said.

It is unclear whether that compromise will mollify Taiwan, but it is unlikely to satisfy either congressional Republicans, who wanted a bigger arms deal, or the government of mainland China, which would have preferred a much smaller one.

The package approved by the Clinton administration includes sophisticated air-to-air and anti-ship missiles as well as a "Pave Paws" long-range radar system able to peer thousands of miles into mainland China. But Congress is likely to focus on the deferral of the sale of four Aegis warships, which cost about $1.1 billion each and boast powerful radars able to track more than 100 incoming missiles and aircraft at a time.

"I am extremely disappointed to learn that the Pentagon has apparently succumbed to pressure from the State Department and the White House to sacrifice Taiwan's security in order to appease the dictators in Beijing," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). "If the Pentagon will not stand up for Taiwan, then it is clear Congress will have to take action."

Undersecretary of Defense Walter B. Slocombe, who has been the Pentagon's point man on the nettlesome arms request from Taiwan, defended the decision.

"The package on the whole is quite robust, with first-class air-to-air missiles and anti-ship missiles," said Slocombe, who has tried to figure out how to sell enough equipment to help Taiwan militarily without selling so much that Beijing would be provoked into a reaction. "We have nothing to apologize for in this package."

China regards Taiwan as its rightful territory and invariably opposes U.S. arms sales to the self-governing island, which take place at this time each year. But China's Communist leadership is particularly sensitive now because of the victory of Chen Shui-bian, a longtime advocate of Taiwanese independence, in the island's recent presidential election.

"We are opposed to an arms sale because that would boost the morale of Taiwan authorities in refusing peaceful reunification with China," said Zhang Yuanyuan, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy. "Especially at this time of great sensitivity, we're concerned that this might be viewed as a wrong signal. So we appeal for great caution and prudence on the part of the American government."

Taiwan, which will receive formal notification of the administration's decision today, had no official response yesterday. Its military has been worried by a Chinese naval and missile buildup across the 100-mile-wide strait that separates the island from the mainland.

U.S. officials plan to tell Taiwanese officials today that the package is designed to address their greatest military vulnerability-- air defense. The Pave Paws system could be linked in the future to a theater missile defense system, an array of anti-missile interceptors capable of shielding a region the size of Taiwan.

The package approved by the White House also includes an upgraded model of the Maverick air-to-ground missile, which can be used to attack ships, and the advanced medium-range air-to-air missile, or AMRAAM, designed for use against aircraft. But in an unusual move, the AMRAAM missiles sold to Taiwan will be kept in the United States and not shipped overseas unless China acquires a similar missile from Russia.

The part of the arms sale most likely to anger China is the Pave Paws radar, which is designed to monitor ballistic missiles. As used by the United States, the Pave Paws has a range of about 3,000 miles, but the version sold to Taiwan may not be as powerful, a Pentagon official said.

"If I were the Chinese, I'd have to assume that the Taiwan radar was connected to the American missile defense network," said John Pike, director of space policy at the Federation of American Scientists, referring to the proposed U.S. construction of a $20 billion national missile defense system over the next five years. But a Pentagon official rejected that notion, saying the United States does not have the kind of political or military links to Taiwan that would permit such cooperation in erecting missile defenses.

Despite yesterday's decision, it is possible that Congress may yet prod the administration into selling Taiwan the Aegis destroyers--or into some compensatory measure, such as giving the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet more Aegis-equipped warships that could be dispatched to Taiwan in a crisis. The Aegis ships are built primarily at shipyards in Mississippi, home of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R), and Maine, home of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen.

Some Democrats as well as Republicans in Congress favor the sale of the destroyers. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) said that the administration decision reflected "a balanced approach" but that he was "disappointed" the Aegis wasn't being sold. "The most likely threat is a missile attack across the Taiwan Straits, and Aegis is the only thing that would be helpful," he said.

2000 The Washington Post Company
 
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