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"U.S. Faces A Dilemma On Taiwan"


By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 14, 2000

Every 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 administration.

Topping 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.

U.S. 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.

The 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.

But 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.

"The 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 Center.

Yet 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.

"We're going to have an interagency wrangle between what is militarily useful and what is politically not self-defeating," said a Pentagon official.

In theory, 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 capability."

But rarely has an arms sale been more politically loaded.

Taiwan 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."

Some 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.

Taiwanese 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.

Richard 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.

Others think symbolism is important.

"An 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.

The 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.

"It 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."

Both 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."

Many 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.

A General 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.

"There 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."

Lott, 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.

"We have tried to get into a dialogue with the administration, and they have stiffed us at every turn," said a source close to Lott.

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.

One 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.

Nearly 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.

The 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 for Taiwan.

Another 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.

In addition, "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.

Another 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."

Opponents 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.

Among 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.

"Where 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."

But 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.

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