WASHINGTON — In a decision closely watched by China, President George W. Bush deferred deciding on Taiwan’s request to buy U.S. destroyers equipped with high-tech Aegis combat radar equipment, leaving open the possibility of future sales if Beijing’s military threats against the island persist, officials said.
The president approved the sale of four Kidd-class destroyers, less potent weapons than the Aegis-equipped destroyers sought by Taiwan, said several U.S. officials and lawmakers briefed on the decision.
However, the destroyers will quickly improve Taiwanese defenses against an increasingly belligerent China, the White House said.
Beijing had warned that the Aegis sale would worsen U.S.-China relations, strained by the April 1 collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese jet that led to the 11-day detention of the 24-member crew.
On Tuesday, China said it was seriously concerned about the U.S. arms package for Taiwan, using measured language in its first response to the American offer of sophisticated weapons to the island.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said China “reserves the complete right to take further actions.”
“China has viewed with serious concern the related reports,” she told a news briefing. “We’ve seen reports but have not seen the U.S. government.
She added: “If the U.S. disregards China’s solemn representation, it would be a grave violation of China’s sovereignty, rude interference in China’s internal affairs and would increase tension across the Taiwan Strait.”
A senior White House official said the president did not bow to Beijing’s pressure and agreed to sell Taiwan up to eight diesel submarines after the island upgrades its navy to handle them.
Taiwan also could buy 12 P-3 Orion submarine-killer aircraft.
The submarine and antisubmarine package would go a long way in thwarting a major tactical advantage that China has over Taiwan. China has between 30 and 40 submarines.
Despite the package, Taiwan didn’t get everything on its shopping list.
Reaction from Congress, though generally muted, cut against traditional ideological grains.
Republicans normally hawkish on China seemed to give Bush the benefit of the doubt, while a Democratic leader accused the president of being soft on the communist regime.
Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, praised the Bush decision, although he said he still believes “that the sale of Aegis destroyers is also justified in light of the outrageous actions of the leaders in Beijing.”
Meanwhile, House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, said that because of the “siz
able buildup of the military force” in China, he had “serious questions regarding the Bush administration’s decision not to provide destroyers equipped with advanced command and control systems to Taiwan.”
The Kidd-class warships could be available by 2003, seven years earlier than the Aegis-equipped destroyers. The White House said Taiwan is not equipped to handle the Aegis system, but it would be available in 2010 if Bush decided later to offer it.
The package, which was to be formally offered to Taiwanese officials Tuesday, was designed to bolster the island’s defenses against mounting Chinese threats from the air, including 300 missiles aimed at Taiwan.
China has no reason to fear the package, the White House official said, adding that China could decrease Taiwan’s chances of getting the Aegis by “rolling back” its military aggression.
Taiwanese authorities adopted a low-profile response Tuesday to the reported approval by Bush of the sale of submarines and destroyers to the island.
“Communist China’s missile build-up has posed a great threat to Taiwan … We would try to obtain whatever advanced arms that would help defend the nation’s safety,” said Taiwan’s military spokesman Huang Sui-sheng.
But Huang declined to comment on the reported arms deal.
U.S. officials said Bush chose not to characterize his decision as a rejection of Taiwan’s request for the Aegis system, choosing the word “defer” to put Beijing on notice that its behavior is being watched.
It was Bush’s first major action involving China since the country detained the 24 U.S. military men and women. The Chinese still hold the U.S. surveillance plane. Relations with China will be tested further when Congress votes on Beijing’s trade status in coming weeks.
Beijing fears Aegis could eventually completely shield Taiwan against China’s arsenal of ballistic missiles.
Taiwan, the U.S. and China have a complicated, intertwined history. Since the Communist Party took over China in 1949, Taiwan has refused to be ruled by Beijing, and Chinese leaders have threatened to use force to retake the “breakaway province,” just 160 km off the mainland’s southeastern coast.
For the past five decades, the tiny island has been able to deter a Chinese attack, largely because the U.S. has sold it defensive weapons and warned China that U.S. forces might fight for the island if war erupts.
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