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China Proposes to Link Buildup With U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan

By John Pomfret

President Jiang Zemin suggested during his meeting with President Bush in October that China could link its deployment of short-range missiles facing Taiwan to U.S. arms sales to the Taiwanese military, a senior Chinese official said.

The official recently described the offer as “sincere and well thought through.” The proposal marked the first time China has offered to link the missiles with arms sales and, the official said, “created new space for cooperation” between Washington and Beijing.

The offer seemed to call the U.S. government’s bluff on the arms sales issue; for years U.S. officials have used China’s substantial and growing missile deployment in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces as the main reason for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. As recently as March, a senior U.S. administration official said a decrease in China’s missile deployments would be a precondition for any limit on U.S. arms sales to the island, which lies 100 miles from China’s southeastern coast.

But Bush administration officials, responding to a reporter’s inquiries in Washington, seemed to have little interest in the Chinese proposal, using words that suggested it was a non-starter as far as they were concerned.

“We will fulfill our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act,” an administration official said. “We have made our position clear, that any issue between Taiwan and China should be resolved without resorting to force or coercion and instead through political dialogue.”

The official added that the Chinese idea was “never formally proposed,” either during Bush’s meeting with Jiang at the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, or in other meetings. “I don’t think anyone would consider it an offer,” he said.

Officials suspect that China deploys about 400 missiles within range of Taiwan’s cities, airports and other installations, a buildup that is increasing by about 50 missiles a year. The missiles represent the one area in which China has achieved military dominance in the Taiwan Strait. While growing stronger, the Chinese air force and navy are still no match for Taiwan’s forces.

China claims Taiwan is part of its territory and has vowed to attack the island of 23 million people if it declares formal independence. Taiwan is a democracy, and successive governments have said that unification with China could be considered only if China undertakes significant political reforms.