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U.S. may sell older destroyers to Taiwan

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush is expected to announce Tuesday his decision on whether to approve the sale of four Kidd-class destroyers to Taiwan, a move that has the backing of the Pentagon and State Department, sources said Monday afternoon.

The destroyers are an older class than the ones Taiwan sought, but sources said the recommendation goes slightly beyond what a Pentagon military analysis determined that Taiwan needs to maintain its ability to thwart possible invasion from the Chinese mainland.

Sources told CNN that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has recommended to Bush that the United States sell the four Kidd-class destroyers to Taiwan, rather than the four high-tech Arleigh Burke-class destroyers the country had requested.

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    The recommendation is to approve the sale of a number of high-tech systems that would increase Taiwan's defenses against air attack, including adding an "Aegis-like capability" to the less-advanced Kidd-class destroyers, originally ordered by the shah of Iran in 1978, an administration official told CNN.

    But sources said Taiwan would not be able to field the new systems for eight to nine years, given the time it takes to develop and manufacture the systems.

    Further, an administration official said the recommended weapons package would not give Taiwan any new capability against Chinese short-range ballistic missiles such as the ones China fired near the coast of Taiwan in 1995 and 1996 in a show of military strength.

    The decision-making process on the requested sales of the Arleigh Burke destroyers -- stocked with Aegis missile defense systems -- put the White House in an awkward and sensitive position because of the current strained relations with Beijing following the collision of a U.S. reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet.

    China is still in possession of the U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft that collided with a Chinese F-8 jet fighter off Hainan Island at the beginning of this month. The Chinese jet broke up and the pilot is presumed dead.

    The 24-person crew of the EP-3 was held on the Chinese island for 11 days. Difficult negotiations brought about the release of the crew. The return of the aircraft is still under discussion. Each side blames the other for triggering the mishap.

    China exploded with anger over the EP-3 incident and warned the United States to cease surveillance flights off its coasts. The United States said the flights will resume within days.

    Tensions between the two nations have risen since the midair collision, aggravated by several other issues, including Chinese detention of several American citizens of Chinese descent, all of them scholars, and the granting of a tourist visa by the United States to the former president of Taiwan so he could visit Cornell University, his alma mater.

    Taiwan has always presented one of the most troublesome obstacles to better relations between the United States and China, even during the best of times, when China and the United States worked in concert to keep the Soviet Union in check, and during the "strategic partnership" days of the Clinton administration.

    China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and has since the 1949 Communist takeover, when the Nationalist government under Chiang Kai-shek, a U.S. ally in World War II, fled the mainland to the island and set up shop.

    Beijing is clear that it intends to bring Taiwan back into the fold, and although reunification talks have sometimes been cordial, China has often flexed its muscles at key times -- conducting naval exercises in the Taiwan Straits, for example, prior to democratic elections on the island.

    The United States maintains strong ties with Taiwan despite Beijing's protests, and Taiwan annually presents the Pentagon with its wish list of armaments it wishes to purchase.

    This year's list was topped by the four Arleigh Burke destroyers, at a cost of $1 billion each.

    Taiwan also requested a package of diesel-electric drive submarines, Patriot anti-missile missiles, and aircraft designed to detect and hunt submarines.

    Sources say the Pentagon is recommending against selling the latest version of the Patriot anti-missile system (PAC-3 version), but would support Taiwan's desire to acquire diesel submarines.

    The United States does not currently make diesel submarines, but several NATO allies do, including Germany, and Pentagon officials said the United States might be able to help Taiwan obtain submarines from a friendly third country.

    Observers had predicted Bush would offer Taiwan the less sophisticated destroyers and would warn the mainland about its sometimes belligerent attitude toward the island.

    Rumsfeld visited the White House last week for a meeting with Bush's national security team, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Hugh Shelton.

    China has opposed the sale in part because of fear it would give Taiwan a rudimentary defense against the 300 or so short-range missiles China has deployed within striking distance of the island.

    A Chinese official in Washington last week predicted a "devastating impact" on U.S.-China relations if Washington decided to sell any advanced weapons to Taiwan, according to the Reuters news service.

    Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhang Yuanyuan said the warning applied to any weapons the United States chooses to sell.

    CNN's Jamie McIntyre Ian Christopher McCaleb contributed to this report.



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