Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The United States plans to build eight diesel-electric submarines for Taiwan as part of an $18 billion arms package, a decision likely to irritate China, which has opposed the sale of weapons to Taipei.

Taiwan’s new representative to the United States, David Tawei Lee, said yesterday that the submarines would be built “probably in Mississippi, in [former Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott’s state.”

Such a decision would end years of speculation about who would build the submarines, which had been promised to Taiwan in 2001.

The United States no longer builds diesel submarines, and other nations that do — notably Germany and the Netherlands — were not willing to take the risk of angering China.

“The Americans will have to start from scratch,” said Mr. Lee, adding that the shipyard — most likely Ingalls in Pascagoula — would have to purchase the blueprints abroad.

Taiwan’s legislature had been expected to vote in October to approve the $18 billion arms purchase from the United States, but Mr. Lee said the deal has become a guns vs. butter debate as lawmakers gear up for legislative elections in December.

“This has become a political issue, an election issue,” Mr. Lee said at a luncheon with editors and reporters from The Washington Times at Taiwan’s Twin Oaks estate in Northwest Washington.

Mr. Lee said the vote may be put off until after the elections in Taiwan, formally known as the Republic of China.

A State Department official said yesterday that the Pentagon has been looking for a way to “make the submarines available” to Taiwan, but that he did not know whether a decision had been made.

President Bush, shortly after taking office in 2001, broke away from previous administrations and cleared the way for the sale of the submarines as part of a larger weapons deal.

On Saturday, people took to the streets in Taiwan to protest spending $18 billion on the arms package rather than social projects such as education.

The package also includes anti-submarine airplanes and Patriot anti-missile systems, as well as ships equipped with advanced electronic battle management systems.

Taiwanese leader Chen Shui-bian said Sunday that only “by engaging in arms buildup and preparing for war can wars be avoided,” Agence France-Presse reported.

Taiwan says the arms deal is crucial to counter a growing military threat from China.

Mr. Lee said Taipei’s government remained completely committed to the purchase, but would consider waiting until after the elections to bring the $18 billion budget to a vote.

“We want to ensure the package will be passed at the appropriate time, to assure the U.S. government will not get the wrong message from the [political] disputes in Taipei,” he said.

A spokesman at the Pentagon would say only that the United States would “continue to assist Taiwan in meeting its legitimate self-defense needs in accordance with our obligations.”

“We normally don’t discuss specific details,” the spokesman said.

Brian Cullin, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman Ship Systems, which owns the Ingalls shipbuilding site, said his company was “keenly interested” in obtaining contracts for the Taiwan submarine deal, but that the matter was in the hands of the U.S. and Taiwanese governments.

“I think it’s extremely likely we would be involved, and we certainly want to be involved,” Mr. Cullin said.

“Right now, we are standing by. The government is well-aware of our interest, and we’re just awaiting a decision,” he said.

The company issued a statement recently after closing a satellite office in Taiwan that Northrop Grumman remained in the hunt for Taiwanese contracts for submarines and surface combatant ships.

Based in Pascagoula, Miss., 66-year-old Ingalls Shipbuilding is the largest private employer in the state, with nearly 11,000 workers.

Harvey Feldman, who helped craft the Taiwan Relations Act and is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Northrop Grumman and other companies could build the submarines — but “for a price.”

“That price might be high,” he added.

Mr. Feldman said he doubted the submarines would be built, and questioned whether they were the ideal weapons for Taiwan against other submarines.

Citing naval analysts, Mr. Feldman said it could take eight to 10 years to train an effective submarine force. A force of anti-submarine warfare helicopters equipped with dipping sonars would be easier and faster to deploy.

China, Mr. Feldman added, would publicly react by saying that “this is a horror and the most heinous act the United States could possibly do, that it threatens the entire foundation of Sino-American relations.”

But “what they would say amongst themselves might be something quite different because they know how long it takes and how difficult it would be to train an efficient submarine force,” he said.

David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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