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U.S. Warships to Reduce China-Taiwan Tensions

By Michael Dobbs and R. Jeffrey Smith
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

By sending a second aircraft carrier task force to Taiwan, the Clinton administration is attempting to signal its alarm over recent Chinese saber-rattling against the island and simultaneously defuse pressure from Congress for a tougher approach to Beijing.

U.S. officials said that the decision to send the carrier USS Nimitz, a submarine, and six other ships to reinforce an existing flotilla of warships off Taiwan was designed to lessen growing political and military tensions between Beijing and Taipei.

At the same time, they made clear that Washington does not intend to abandon the doctrine of "strategic ambiguity" under which the United States refuses to say precisely how it will react to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

"This is a signal that we want the situation to return to one of normalcy and stability," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns. "It is meant to show the very great interest we have in having China and Taiwan discuss their problems peacefully rather than by force or the threat of force."

The dispatch of the second carrier group followed an announcement by Beijing that it intended to use live ammunition in future missile firings across the Straits of Taiwan, which will continue until March 20, three days before the first free presidential election in Taiwanese history.

The Communist government in Beijing is concerned that the election could be a prelude to a formal declaration of independence by what Beijing regards as a renegade Chinese province.

The U.S. naval buildup around Taiwan drew bipartisan support in Congress, where pressure has been growing for a get-tough policy with Beijing because of differences over Taiwan, nuclear non-proliferation, trade and human rights.

Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole, R.-Kan, who was campaigning for Tuesday's presidential primary in Florida, said he supported the administration's decision to send a "strong signal to China," and expressed concern that the Chinese might be "testing the president."

"Considering the starting point, this is a move in the right direction," said Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Calif., the sponsor of a House resolution that would formally commit the United States to coming to the aid of Taiwan in the event of an "invasion" or "missile attack" from the mainland. "We have moved the administration away from dangerous rhetoric that virtually invites aggression by Beijing."

Administration officials insist that the dispatch of one of the largest naval armadas to the region since the end of the Vietnam war did not mark any change in underlying U.S. policy to China and Taiwan.

The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 commits the United States to help Taiwan defend itself, but stops short of a pledge to send U.S. troops to the island if it comes under attack from mainland China.

"This is a skillful honing of the policy of constructive ambiguity," said Stanley Roth, a fellow at the U.S. institute for Peace and a former presidential adviser on China. "The administration has gotten China's attention that this is a matter we take very seriously, while at the same time avoiding the trap of committing the United States to coming to Taiwan's defense."

Over the past few days, senior administration officials both in Washington and Beijing have repeatedly warned their Chinese counterparts that military action against Taiwan could have "grave consequences." The message was underlined by National Security Adviser Anthony Lake during a daylong discussion with the foreign affairs director of China's State Council, Liu Huaqiu.

U.S. officials said that the decision to move the Nimitz and USS Independence battle groups closer to Taiwan was made on Saturday by President Clinton in California after Secretary of Defense William J. Perry sold the idea to Lake and Secretary of State Warren Christopher during a Pentagon briefing that day.

Perry told the group he was concerned that China's military exercise near Taiwan had grown significantly in size and scope, and that China's missile tests had appeared to bracket the island nation as a way of demonstrating it could be targeted next. He had also become concerned that the exercises posed a threat of disrupting commerce in and around Taiwanese ports.

Several officials said Perry and other policy-makers agreed that a show of U.S. military resolve was needed to calm anxieties elsewhere in the region and demonstrate that the United States would not be bullied. "It is a signal to our partners that we are there for the long haul, and not a transitory presence in the region," said one official.