Wednesday, April 21, 2004

The United States will continue to sell defensive arms to Taiwan under the provisions of a 1979 law, but the island nation’s government should not move toward formal independence, a senior State Department official told Congress yesterday.

James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act permits U.S. arms sales to the country, which China views as a breakaway province.

“The U.S. will continue the sale of appropriate defensive military equipment to Taiwan in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act,” Mr. Kelly said at a hearing marking the 25th anniversary of the act.

“And viewing any use of force against Taiwan with grave concern, we will maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion against Taiwan.”

China’s military has been building up its forces opposite Taiwan that include some 500 short-range missiles, advanced submarines and fighter-bombers, according to U.S. officials.

Taiwan’s military has sought to match some of those weapons systems through purchases from the United States. The Bush administration has offered to sell Taiwan warships, submarines and missile defenses and arms transfers are expected this year.

Mr. Kelly said the possibility of U.S. involvement in a conflict between Taiwan and China is “very real” and potentially would risk American lives.

On Taiwan independence, Mr. Kelly said: “Realistically, any unilateral move towards independence will, in our view, avail Taiwan of nothing it does not already enjoy in terms of freedom, autonomy, prosperity and security.”

“Such measures could carry the potential for a military response from the [Chinese government], a dangerous, objectionable, and foolish response; if such a thing were done by China, that could destroy much of what Taiwan has built, and it would damage China, too, of course,” he said. “We in the United States see these risks clearly and trust they are well understood by [Taiwan] President Chen Shui-bian and others in Taiwan.”

Mr. Kelly said U.S. policy toward the region is based on the 1979 law and three U.S.-China communiques that outline the relationship through ambiguous word formulations.

The United States formally recognizes Beijing as the government of China, but also is committed to preventing the forcible reunification of the island with the mainland, which was separated during a civil war in 1949.

Peter Rodman, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, told the congressional panel that deterrence of an attack by China should “be as unambiguous as possible.”

Mr. Rodman said China could miscalculate and take military action against Taiwan.

“Our job is to minimize the danger of their miscalculation, and at the same time we want our friends in Taiwan not to be making the situation even more complicated,” he said.

President Bush’s 2001 statement that the United States would do “whatever it takes” to help Taiwan defend itself against any Chinese attack was aimed at ending ambiguity, Mr. Rodman said. “The ambiguity is not healthy,” he said.

Mr. Rodman said China could develop into a peaceful power but also could become “a China that uses force.”

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said at the hearing that the dangers in the current China-Taiwan relations is a miscalculation.

“The continued buildup of missiles in areas of the People’s Republic of China adjacent to the Taiwan Strait, with the number now approaching 500, can only be interpreted as a form of coercion, which the [Taiwan Relations Act] stipulates would be a cause of grave concern to the United States,” Mr. Hyde said.

Taiwan’s independence-oriented president, Mr. Chen, was re-elected last month after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt shortly before the voting. He has said he is considering updating the island’s constitution, a move that is opposed by Beijing.

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