Faces A Dilemma On Taiwan"
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2000
year at this time, the United States decides which weapons
it will sell to Taiwan. But this is no ordinary year; Taiwan
has presented no ordinary shopping list; and the decision
could hardly come at a more sensitive moment for the Clinton
Taiwan's list of desired weapons are four Aegis destroyers
costing about $1 billion apiece and bristling with missiles,
guns, torpedoes and radars that can track 100 targets simultaneously.
Awesome as this firepower may be in battle, members of the
Clinton administration worry that its most explosive impact
would be diplomatic.
relations with China already have been roiled this year
by a newly elected leader in Taiwan, American missile defense
plans and a U.S.-sponsored condemnation of China before
the U.N. Human Rights Commission. As a result, the Clinton
administration has been trying to calm tensions across the
Taiwan Strait, to dampen talk of an arms race and to persuade
Congress to accord China permanent normal trade relations.
Chinese Communist government has warned of dire consequences
if the United States sells Aegis destroyers to Taiwan, a
self-governing island that China claims as part of its territory.
Beijing fears the sale could embolden Taiwan's new president,
Chen Shui-bian, a longtime advocate of Taiwanese independence.
the Aegis destroyer has important friends in Congress, beginning
with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), whose
home state is one of two where the warship is made. Lott
and other top Republicans have warned the White House that
refusing to sell destroyers to Taiwan might torpedo the
trade bill on China.
administration is trying to find a straddle not to anger
Beijing, please Congress and do what is right for Taiwan,"
said Douglas Paal, president of the Asia Pacific Policy
the administration itself is deeply torn. The National Security
Council opposes selling major new weapons to Taiwan, while
the Pentagon is sympathetic to Taiwan's requests and the
State Department is said to be divided. The White House
may make a final decision as early as next week.
going to have an interagency wrangle between what is militarily
useful and what is politically not self-defeating,"
said a Pentagon official.
the decision should be largely technical. The Taiwan Relations
Act, adopted in 1979 when the United States established
diplomatic ties with mainland China and downgraded relations
with Taiwan, requires the U.S. government to provide weapons
"to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense
rarely has an arms sale been more politically loaded.
is about to have its first democratic transfer of power.
Chen's May 20 inauguration will end a half-century of Nationalist
Party rule, and China has responded with threats against
Taiwan and demands for Chen to say publicly that both the
island and the mainland belong to "one China."
experts have urged the Clinton administration to put off
a decision until it is clear how Chen will govern. "I
don't like to get on a bus until I know where it's going,"
said Michel Oksenberg, who was director of Asian affairs
in President Jimmy Carter's National Security Council.
sources said Chen refused a Clinton administration request
that he withdraw or postpone the arms purchase request on
the pretext of having his new Cabinet review it. But administration
officials deny asking Chen to pull back the request.
Bush, head of the American Institute in Taiwan, which handles
U.S. relations with the island, argues that the decision
should be based on a straightforward assessment of the threats
facing Taiwan. "We should not regard arms sales as
symbols of American support," he said.
think symbolism is important.
election just took place, and if the candidate championing
democracy is turned down, it certainly would be demoralizing
to us," said Taiwanese legislator Parris Chang, an
adviser to Chen. "If the U.S. is not firm, Beijing
will be more audacious," Chang added.
domestic U.S. politics of the Aegis destroyer deal are just
as thorny. The destroyers are built by Bath Iron Works in
Maine, home state of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen,
and by Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., a major
beneficiary of Lott's influence.
has become pretty clear that Senator Lott is quite interested
in having those ships built in Pascagoula," said Paal.
Taiwan is seeking to buy two ships from Pascagoula and two
from Bath, which Paal called "a very deft move"
that "dangles bait before both the northern and southern
delegations and appeals to both Democrats and Republicans."
General Dynamics Corp., owner of the Bath Iron Works, and
the Taiwan Research Institute, associated with the Nationalist
Party of outgoing President Lee Teng-hui, have retained
the lobbying firm of Cassidy & Associates Inc. Cassidy's
key lobbyists include Carl Ford, a former Reagan administration
defense official who has circulated a memo saying that a
recently leaked Pentagon report "demonstrates in airtight
terms Taiwan's need for the Aegis and other systems to offset
Beijing's ballooning arsenal."
lawmakers outside Maine and Mississippi also have constituent
companies interested in the deal. The Aegis Industrial Alliance
says 1,938 contractors in 49 states are involved in making
the destroyer. Other major contractors include Massachusetts-based
Raytheon Co., Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. and
Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp.
Dynamics spokesman said the Taiwanese purchases are necessary
to keep the shipyards functioning and to avoid laying off
workers who will be needed in a few years to make the next
generation of U.S. Navy destroyers, the first of which is
to be built in 2005. Without the Taiwanese order, the number
of destroyers built every year is due to drop from three
to two in 2002.
are millions of dollars at stake and thousands of jobs,
and they're weighing in very heavily on this," said
Lee Hamilton, a former House member who recently went to
Taiwan as an envoy of the administration. "A lot of
times motivations for a policy are very mixed. Trent [Lott]
has been very strong on Taiwan, and the sale of the destroyers
would fit with that belief."
Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison
(R-Tex.) have written to President Clinton that the failure
to sell the Aegis destroyers to Taiwan could endanger support
for granting China permanent normal trade relations, a key
part of the deal to bring China into the World Trade Organization.
They got little response.
have tried to get into a dialogue with the administration,
and they have stiffed us at every turn," said a source
close to Lott.
is also holding on his desk the Taiwan Security Enhancement
Act, passed overwhelmingly by the House over White House
opposition. He has put the measure--which would strengthen
U.S. military ties to Taiwan--on a list of bills he wants
adopted by Memorial Day. Administration officials assume
that Lott will press for its passage if the White House
rejects the sale of the Aegis.
White House official insisted that such threats won't affect
the decision. "There is no such thing as a member blackmailing
us with a piece of legislation," he said. "We're
going to make our decision based on what is happening in
the [Taiwan] Strait." If necessary, he added, Clinton
will veto the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act. One lobbyist
estimates that between 50 and 57 senators now support the
measure; 67 votes are needed to override a veto.
lost amid the politics of the sale is the question of what
Taiwan really needs. An administration report on the China-Taiwan
military balance was due March 1 under an amendment to last
year's defense authorization bill, but the administration
still has not produced it. Some House members want to issue
a subpoena for the document.
administration has many alternatives to selling the Aegis
destroyers. It could provide smaller ships with the so-called
evolved advanced combat system, also known as "Aegis
minus" or "Aegis lite." The United States
also could provide radar components that might later form
part of a regional shield against missiles. China vigorously
opposes the deployment of so-called theater missile defenses
option might be to placate Lott by ordering Aegis destroyers
for the U.S. Pacific fleet, which could send the vessels
toward Taiwan in a crisis. Or the United States could sell
other weapons--such as the latest Patriot missiles, P-3
Orion antisubmarine planes, long-range radar or air-to-air
missiles--to help Taiwan meet the threat posed by China's
growing Navy and its missile buildup in Fujian province,
just across the 100-mile wide Taiwan Strait.
"there are a lot of unflashy, unsexy things we could
do to help Taiwan ride out a ballistic missile attack,"
said James Mulvenon, a Rand Corp. expert on the Chinese
military. Noting that Taiwan still stores warplanes, ammunition
and fuel above ground, he said the island would be better
off building concrete bunkers than buying complex new weapons.
critic of the Aegis sale, a foreign policy adviser to congressional
Democrats, doubts that Taiwan's Navy has the expertise to
use the Aegis well. He added that the warships cannot be
delivered for five years and, thus, are "not a near-term
solution for anything."
of the sale also believe that conservative members of Congress
and Taiwanese lobbyists have exaggerated the threat from
China's military buildup. One congressional aide notes that
the United States has sold $20 billion of arms to Taiwan
since 1991. By contrast, he said, China has purchased $6
billion of foreign arms during the same period. Taiwan was
the world's No. 2 buyer of arms during the 1990s, trailing
Saudi Arabia. China ranked eighth.
the weaponry Taiwan already has acquired: 150 F-16 fighter
jets (approved by President George Bush), improved Patriot
antimissile weapons, Stinger missiles, ground and airborne
radar equipment, tanks and TOW antitank missiles.
is the sign of Clinton administration tilt toward China
and its neglect of Taiwan?" asked the congressional
aide. "This administration has not been skimpy on arms
sales to Taiwan."
Taiwan's supporters think the island needs more. "Anything
less than Aegis would show the administration is violating
the spirit, if not the letter of," the Taiwan Relations
Act, said a lobbyist for Taiwan.