Pentagon's compromise keeps the peace in Taiwan Strait

The decision to sell Taiwan a radar system, instead of ships, keeps domestic critics at bay and placates China.

Despite recent setbacks, the Clinton administration has managed to stay on course to establish normal trade relations with China while at the same time increasing security across the Taiwan Strait.

Both key issues were kept alive this week with a compromise decision to sell long-range radar enhancements to Taiwan - but not the US-made Aegis destroyers, which are among the most advanced weapons on the seas.

"The administration took a good, middle-of-the-road line on this," says Luke Warren, an arms-control expert at the Council for a Livable World Education Fund in Washington.

By doling out the weaponry in moderation, analysts say, the US will not unduly anger the Chinese, who vehemently opposed a sale of four of the $1 billion destroyers. Not only is the US hoping to quell tension with China, but the administration wants to assure that it has a smooth transition into the World Trade Organization.

In initial reaction to the announcement, Chinese officials said they opposed any sale to Taiwan, as they always have, but they were not bellicose enough to set off alarms over a potential confrontation.

At the same time, the sale has angered some Taiwan backers, but probably "goes far enough to satisfy the Republicans" who favor greater military support for the breakaway island, says an administration official.

Senate majority leader Trent Lott wanted to sell the destroyers, which feature an advanced Aegis radar system and can launch cruise missiles. But he did not threaten drastic action after the administration said it would not make the sale, as some officials worried he would.

"While I am pleased the administration has agreed to sell Taiwan certain munitions," Mr. Lott said, "I firmly believe the administration could and should have done more to enhance Taiwan's security during the round of arms talks."

By keeping the Republicans from boiling over, President Clinton will still have a strong chance of passing a law to permanently normalize trade relations with China, which has become one of the administration's top foreign-policy goals.

The biggest challenge to the measure will come in a May 22 House vote, which is being closely contested.

Supporters of normal trade relations with China have suffered two recent setbacks, however. First, Commerce Secretary William Daley had to cancel a trip to China that aimed to pull swing voters in Congress onto the side of the president. Then, it was reported that House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt will vote against the measure.

Nevertheless, supporters of the bill are confident they have the required numbers to end an annual review of China's trade status, and they say their advantage will only grow as Mr. Clinton intensifies lobbying in early May.

Although the issues of selling military assistance to Taiwan and trading with China are separate, they have been linked together by a debate in Washington on how the US should relate to the Communist giant. Some politicians want to isolate China and boost Taiwan into a formidable military opponent. Others want to bring China into the world community and hope for internal reform, which in turn could ease cross-strait tension.

THE Aegis destroyer sale was especially contentious because Taiwan had lobbied hard for it. But at the last minute, the Pentagon advised against it, although it did not rule out future sales. The radar system that the US agreed to sell will allow Taiwan to detect a missile attack from deep within mainland China. The US also left the door open for more upgrades of the Taiwanese system.

Arms sales to Taiwan are legislated under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which specifies that they should be of a defensive nature. Republicans have been threatening to pass another measure, however, called the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would increase the level of arms that the US could sell to Taiwan. But such a move would likely lead to a presidential veto.

Because US officials recognize "one China," their relationship with Taiwan has been hard to define. On one hand, they want to support the democratic island. On the other hand, they do not want to appear to be backing independence from the mainland.

Likewise, the US relationship with China is at times confusing. The State Department has singled out China for human rights abuses, yet is trying to strengthen bilateral trade relations.

On Tuesday, a US-backed effort to publicly criticize Beijing at the United Nations was rejected in a 22-to-18 vote by the human rights commission, showing that the US condemnation of China is not universally accepted.

Administration officials, however, hope they will have more success on the issue of permanent normal-trade relations between the US and China. According to James Lindsay, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, opponents of the measure have not been able to get as many votes as they need to turn the tide. And, the fact that a date for a vote has been set is significant. "Once the House leadership [which supports the measure] schedules a vote, it's all but over," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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