- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2001

President George W. Bush may not have known he was playing hardball with Chinese leaders, but he surely knows it now. There is no other way to describe Beijings forced capture of a Navy EP-3 intelligence-gathering plane. It is a hardball response to the recent defection to the United States of Col. Xu Junping, a member of the general staff of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA).

Col. Xu has been described by the Hong Kong press as an outstanding officer with broad responsibility for China´s arms control initiatives, and an insider who knows a great deal about military strategy and plans. Chinese sources claim it was information from Col. Xu about China´s construction of fiber optic cable lines for Iraq´s air defenses that enabled the Bush administration to flatly reject Chinese denials and demand an end to their military assistance to Iraq.

Chinese leaders fear their most sensitive military secrets now are known to Washington, including plans for military pressure on Taiwan and the names of dozens of agents in the U.S. The defection has forced the PLA to review its strategy and plans, and to cancel military exchanges with the U.S. It is such a serious loss Beijing apparently felt it had to take strong action.

That action, we now know, was to force down a U.S. intelligence-gathering plane, even if it meant sacrificing a Chinese pilot. It gives the Beijing leaders a U.S. plane jammed with communications intelligence equipment and a couple dozen hostages to hold until Washington does what China wants. And what China wants is to prevent the U.S. from selling advanced military equipment to Taiwan.

President George W. Bush is in the same position as President Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev was testing a young American president. Now Jiang Zemin is testing another young American president. China wants Washington to give it a free hand with Taiwan, and may well plan to hold the American flyers hostage to that end.

The immediate issue is what weapons Washington will approve for sale to Taiwan in a decision to be announced this month. President Clinton accommodated Beijing by holding arms sales to Taiwan to a minimum. The Bush team has suggested a more forthcoming response to Taiwan´s annual request, but the administration is split between those who want to help America´s longtime ally and those who don´t want to rile Beijing.

There is no question President Bush will sell weapons to Taiwan. But will he sell the right ones? Of all the weapons Taiwan wants, two are at the top of the list: Aegis destroyers and Patriot PAC-3 missile interceptors. It is no coincidence that the mainland most strenuously opposes those weapons. Sha Zukang, arms control director in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, recently described Beijing´s concern. "Aegis is the worst," he said, "its sale is a very, very serious issue." He also warned against theater missile defenses, calling their sale to Taiwan interference in China´s internal affairs.

China is trying to block what Taiwan needs most. An Aegis destroyer is a total weapon system with powerful radar that can track hundreds of targets and defend against aircraft, submarines, surface ships and cruise missiles, and with planned upgrades will be able to stop ballistic missiles as well. Taiwan wants to buy four and should be allowed to do so.

Last year, the Defense Department offered Taiwan four Kidd-class destroyers instead. While they do not have the Aegis weapon system and cannot defend against ballistic missiles, they are more powerful than any ship in Taiwan´s navy and would add to the island´s defense against the modern destroyers, submarines and combat aircraft China is buying from Russia.

The Kidd-class destroyers are available now and could be delivered right away. One solution would be to sell Taiwan the Kidd-class ships for early delivery, while agreeing to sell the Aegis destroyers for future construction and delivery in five to 10 years. That would quickly improve Taiwan´s defenses, provide ships for training crews for the more advanced Aegis models, and send a message to Beijing that the U.S. will not be deterred from assisting democratic Taiwan. For Mr. Bush, it also would take the Aegis issue off the table, which otherwise will be back every year.

China also wants to block the sale of the Patriot Advanced Capability-3, a brand-new ground-based missile defense, which would upgrade Taiwan´s existing Patriot PAC-2 units. With greater reach and improved capability, the new Patriot would help neutralize the missiles China is using to threaten Taiwan. The PAC-3 is now in low-rate production, which easily could be increased to meet Taiwan´s need.

There have been reports President Bush decided not to sell Aegis destroyers to Taiwan following his recent meeting with China´s Vice Premier Qian Qichen, who told the press China might use military action against Taiwan. But Mr. Bush´s decision, if it has been made, has not been announced. Now Beijing has raised the ante by downing the EP-3.

President Bush should act promptly to show he will not be blackmailed by demanding the immediate return of the plane and its crew, and approving the sale of Aegis destroyers and improved Patriots to Taiwan.

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