Arms requests test for US policy

March 2, 2000 China Times

Debate is continuing within the Clinton administration on the sale of Aegis-equipped warships to Taiwan, but it now seems likely that the U.S. president will reject the sale of such advanced technology and instead offer other weapon systems which can fortify the island's defenses. Clinton must be ready with his decision before scheduled annual U.S.-ROC military sales talks are held next month in Washington, DC.

In a front-page story dispatched from Beijing, today's New York Times provides an analysis of possible U.S. military sales to Taiwan, stating that the PRC strongly opposes the sale of Aegis-equipped destroyers. The report states that Beijing officials have privately warned Washington that "the warship sales in particular would be regarded as a serious violation of China's national sovereignty and would create dangerous new tensions with the United States as well as across the Taiwan Strait."

According to the New York Times article, the Clinton administration is divided into two groups over the sale of Aegis destroyers. On one side, military and Pentagon officials say Taiwan is being reasonable in requesting the vessels. On the other, State Department and National Security Council officials warn against unnecessary and risky provocation of Beijing.

The latter group is arguing that Aegis missile systems and other highly sophisticated weapons cannot buy Taiwan real security, which they say "depends on negotiations and, ultimately, American support." Nevertheless, ranking U.S. military officials supporting the transfer of Aegis technology believe that Taiwan has a legitimate case for requesting the sale. One senior administration official who favors the sale said "We are required to give capabilities that help Taiwan defend itself."

Even if the U.S. approves the Aegis sale, delivery of the first ship would not occur for five years, while it would be several more years before ROC navy personnel would be able to handle the equipment properly. China's principal fear surrounding the Aegis system is that it could be adapted for use in an "upper-tier" defense, enabling Taiwan to join the theater missile defense (TMD) system that the United States and Japan are currently working to develop.

According to the China Times, ROC military authorities have stated that a decision will be made next month on the sale of the Aegis-equipped ships. Officials added that if the American side does not approve the sale, Taiwan's window of opportunity for arms of this sort might close forever. In the wake of the 1996 cross-strait crisis, the ROC military resolved to establish anti-missile defenses, building a "lower-tier" anti-missile system around long-range warning radar, Aegis destroyers, and the latest Patriot missile systems.

The ROC military is optimistic about its chances for acquiring the long-range warning radar system, capable of detecting missile threats within a 3,000-kilometer range-large enough to cover mainland China as well as neighboring countries such as Korea and Japan.

Entering arms sale talks with the United States, the ROC Navy has requested diesel submarines, P-3C surveillance aircraft and Aegis destroyers. Among the requests, the one for submarines is almost certain to be denied. Last year the U.S. agreed to sell the ROC decommissioned P-2B surveillance planes, but the ROC Navy has its eye on the current P-3C model. Meanwhile, the Aegis presents the most sensitive and volatile issue, the outcome of which is as likely to be decided by political factors as military considerations.