Pentagon officials met with officials from Taipei to discuss the arms sale proposal, which represents the most extensive package since 1992, when former President George Bush offered up to 150 F-16 strike aircraft.
President George W. Bush authorized the sale of four Kidd-class Navy destroyers, eight diesel submarines and 12 P-3 planes designed to hunt enemy submarines. But Bush deferred decision on Taiwan's request for a newer class of destroyer equipped with Aegis radar, which could undermine China's missile threat in the Taiwan Straits.
A Bush administration official said that the president made his decision based on an assessment of Taiwan's defense needs and the military threat it faces, and that the Navy plane incident played no role in the decision.
"The president believes this is a wise and proper course to take representing Taiwan's legitimate defense needs," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters as U.S. and Taiwanese officials met behind closed doors at the Pentagon.
In Beijing, Chinese officials voiced "concern" about the level of arms in the proposal. "The Chinese side expresses its concern over the reports," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue told reporters.
"China has always been seriously opposed to weapons sales to Taiwan and strongly opposed to such sophisticated weapons as the Kidd-class destroyer, the diesel submarines and the P-3 plane," she said.
A stronger protest from China is expected. Zhang said that China "reserves the complete right to take further actions."
The White House called on China to reduce its forces, its missiles in particular, in the strait to prevent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan that alarm Beijing.
"The best way to address this issue involving ongoing decisions the United States government will make vis-à-vis Taiwan's defense needs is for China to take fewer actions rather than more in terms of its military presence across the Straits of Taiwan so there is less of a threat to Taiwan," Fleischer said.
Taiwan remained low key on the announcement but welcomed the promise of the biggest arms package it will have received in a decade after an increase in missile deployments across the Taiwan Strait by China.
The arms buildup facing Taiwan includes 200 to 300 newly deployed short-range missiles that China says it reserves the right to use if Taiwan were to declare independence. China has considered the island country a breakaway province since 1949 when the retreating nationalist army settled there after losing a civil war to communist forces.
"The presence of Chinese missiles across the straits is a reflection of what Taiwan faces and a factor the United States considers in determining what Taiwan's defense needs are," Fleischer said.
China has repeatedly warned the United States against selling the Aegis radar system to Taiwan and threatened to launch an arms race. White House officials said the administration's objective was not to threaten or contain China, but rather to sell Taiwan armaments for its defensive needs.
The administration cited the country's need to upgrade its air defense as its reason for the sale of destroyers, explaining that it deferred the sale of the Aegis radar-equipped ships because they would not be ready for sale until 2010. Taiwan's air defense could not wait that long, officials said.
"We keep open the possibility of Aegis in the future in light of the evolving security situation and the People's Republic of China's air threat to Taiwan," officials said. The Kidd-class destroyers would be ready in 2003.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, called Bush's decision "prudent."
"My hometown is a place where we build ships," Lott told reporters at the White House after meeting with the president to discuss the pending budget. "We built the Kidd-class destroyers, all four of them. We also have the capability to construct Aegis-class destroyers, the most modern destroyers in the world.
"The problem with the Aegis destroyers, it would be eight to 10 years before they could actually be delivered."
Bush's advisers have recommended that future decisions on the sale of Arleigh Burke class destroyers outfitted with the Aegis system be made contingent on whether or not China continues its military buildup.
Fleischer said consideration of an Aegis sale would likely come up again in next year's arms negotiations, but left open the possibility of revisiting the issue before then depending on China's actions in the straits.
With a radar system that can handle between 100 and 200 targets at once, the Chinese consider the Aegis-equipped Arleigh Burke class destroyer Taiwan wants to be the definition of "advanced weapons." The ships have sophisticated radars and fire-control systems that can simultaneously defend against surface, air and underwater attack, while launching offensive strikes.
The United States' arms sale to Taiwan results in an annual, if indirect, debate with China. It was undertaken by the United States shortly after the country abandoned its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. At that time, Congress passed the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to signify the continuing special relationship between the United States and Taiwan and to help the island republic protect itself from a possible Chinese attack.
Fleischer said the White House had had no direct consultation with Chinese officials about the deal.
"I think they've heard about it," Fleischer said.
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
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