WASHINGTON – President Bush deferred Taiwan's request to buy high-tech U.S. destroyers equipped with the Aegis combat radar system, but it will be able to obtain a less-potent class of warship as a buffer against China, U.S. officials said Monday.
Government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush approved the sale of a number of Kidd-class destroyers, which have a much less potent ship-borne radar system but would still be a step forward for Taiwan's navy. However, Bush has still left open the possibility of future sales if China continues to pose a military threat to the island.
The White House also said Bush agreed to sell Taiwan up to eight diesel submarines and 12 P-3 aircraft, along with various helicopters, assault vehicles and other arms. Besides the Aegis, the U.S. deferred sales of Apache helicopters and tanks requested by Taiwan.
Also, the United States will brief Taiwan about software for the new PAC-3 version of the Patriot air defense missile, but will review later whether to provide the system itself.
The White House said the package was designed to bolster Taiwan's defenses against the mounting Chinese threats from the air. The United States is bound by law to help Taiwan defend itself. "We think there is nothing in this package for China to fear," the senior White House official said.
Officials said Bush would not characterize his decision as a rejection of Taiwan's request for the Aegis system, choosing the word "defer" to signal that the arms could still be sold if Beijing does not improve relations with America.
Indeed, the White House official told reporters that China could decrease the chances of Taiwan getting the Aegis system if Beijing becomes less aggressive militarily.
The decision came after Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recommended the sale of four Kidd-class destroyers. Those vessels have a much less potent ship-borne radar system but would still be a step forward for Taiwan's Navy.
One source said Rumsfeld's recommendation included several other defense systems besides the four Kidd-class destroyers. He would not say what they were.
Rumsfeld will officially relay Bush's decision to a visiting Taiwanese delegation on Tuesday after notifying senior members of Congress. But the sources said the decision had already been made.
"You'll find out when I make my decision clear," Bush told reporters earlier in the day. "I haven't made it clear yet. We'll let you know soon."
The decision is one of the most sensitive foreign policy issues to cross Bush's desk since he became president because of its potential impact on relations with China.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer played down any implications for strained U.S.-China relations, calling the Taiwan decision "an annual event" and insisting that China's recent detention of an American spy plane crew will not be the sole factor in making the decision.
"Of course, the president's going to consider all factors that go into Taiwan's defense needs," Fleischer said.
Taiwan has asked for permission to buy warships equipped with the sophisticated Aegis radar systems.
Administration officials said aides to Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell favored deferring the sale of Aegis, preferring instead the sale of Kidd-class destroyers.
Kidd-class destroyers are no longer in use in the U.S. Navy. Adm. Dennis Blair, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told Congress last month that the Kidd-class destroyers have "plenty of useful life yet."
The issue of Aegis radars is the most sensitive aspect of Taiwan's arms request. China fears the technology eventually could serve as platform for a regional missile that would provide a shield for Taiwan against China's growing arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles.
At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said the arms sale decision will not be influenced by recent problems with China, including China's continued detention of a U.S. surveillance plane.
The plane made a forced landing on China's Hainan Island three weeks ago after a collision with a Chinese fighter plane. The 24 Americans on board have been released and the two countries are negotiating the fate of the U.S. plane.