In deferring the sale of highly sophisticated US destroyers to Taiwan, President Bush has shown a degree of prudence in handling a sensitive juncture in America's China policy.
To be sure, China is fuming over the sales Mr. Bush sanctioned yesterday - four Kidd-class destroyers, a dozen antisubmarine aircraft, diesel submarines, and other technology - the most robust US arms package for Taiwan in nearly a decade, experts say.
Yet by postponing sales of the most advanced weapon systems on Taipei's wish list, Bush created a clear incentive for China to reduce its military buildup - including some 300 short-range ballistic missiles - along the coast opposite Taiwan. At the same time, as during the China spy-plane crisis, Bush staked out a middle road between hawks and moderate policymakers inside and outside his administration.
"They have opted, if not to punt, at least to exercise some caution," says Jonathan Pollack, a China expert at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.
Conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill have urged Bush to radically upgrade US military ties and arms sales to Taiwan, including by providing Taipei with Aegis radar-equipped Arleigh Burke class destroyers.
"Given China's military buildup and increasing verbal threats, there can be no legal justification for denying items such as the Aegis," as the Clinton administration did for the past three years, urged a published report this month by the top Republican Asia expert on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Yet Bush's arms-sales decision appears to follow more closely the advice of moderate China policymakers who had called for him to hold off on the sale of the most advanced weapons systems.
Experts differ over whether the Bush strategy of more measured arms sales this year will lead China to curb its military deployments opposite Taiwan. Chinese military leaders may "look at their acquisition options differently," knowing that "if their missile deployments proceed at the current rate, they cannot anticipate restraint in US arms sales to Taiwan," says Mr. Pollack.
Yet others suggest that the latest round of US arms sales will more likely legitimize the buildup of China's military. "I don't see in the PLA [People's Liberation Army] the sort of perspective that will lead to restraint," says Bates Gill, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution here.
The US sales of Kidd-class destroyers, P-3 maritime search and antisubmarine aircraft, and possibly European-designed diesel submarines are expected to significantly enhance Taiwan's ability to defend itself against China.
Also significant, if less visible, is the training, logistics assistance, and other know-how Washington will provide to help Taiwan use the more sophisticated weapons systems, thus signaling "a deeper degree of cooperation" between the Taiwan and US militaries that is likely to worry Beijing, says Bates.
Beijing, which since 1949 has considered Taiwan a renegade province, has threatened to use force in reunifying the island of 23 million people with the Chinese mainland. Taiwan's self-defense capacity has depended heavily on US weapons sales.
China immediately lodged a strong protest against the latest sales, hinting they could cause "new harm" to Sino-US ties. In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said the arms transfer would constitute "a serious violation of Chinese sovereignty ... and give rise to tensions across the Taiwan Straits."
Staff writer Robert Marquand contributed from Beijing.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor