US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described Taiwan as a "sovereign nation" Tuesday, saying it was up to Taiwan to decide whether or not to buy the US$15 package of weaponry Washington has offered, and that the decision would not alter the US' legal obligation to aid Taiwan in defending against a Chinese attack.
At the same time, Rumsfeld said he did not think that the current joint Chinese-Russian military exercises in the waters north of Taiwan represent a threat.
Answering questions as a regular Pentagon press briefing, Rumsfeld declined to describe Taiwan as taking unfair advantage of the US' commitment to aid the island by failing to approve the special defense package while relying on America to come to Taiwan's defense in case of a Chinese attack.
"I think if I wanted to communicate something to the government of Taiwan, I would find a better place than here [at the press briefing]," he told reporters.
"I've always believed that countries -- sovereign nations -- have to do what they decide to do," Rumsfeld said in answer to a question about the Taiwan legislature's action on the arms package. "It's up to them to do it. "
We make our position known, and our position is known with the Taiwan Relations Act. And we have an obligation under that act to work with Taiwan on fulfilling security and arms sale provisions of that act.
"If they decide not to [approve the arms package] or if they decide to do so, that's up to them," he said.
The US$15 billion package, whose approval is supported by President Chen Shui-bian (
Rumsfeld's comments contrast with efforts by key Pentagon officials in recent years to pressure the Legislative Yuan to approve the special arms package, which includes diesel submarines, PAC III anti-missile batteries, and P-3C reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft.
Last October, for instance, Richard Lawless, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense for East Asia, and one of Taiwan's best friends in Washington, issued a stern warning to Taiwan that the failure to approve the arms package would result in dire consequences for Taiwan.
Taiwan would be considered a "liability, rather than a partner" to its friends if it failed to approve the arms package.
"If the Legislative Yuan fails to pass this budget, it will be much harder to convince foreign partners to support your defense," Lawless said.
His comments were in a keynote address to a joint military conference sponsored by the US-Taiwan Business Council, whose members include the giants of the US defense contractor industry, who would benefit from the sale of the items in the arms package.
Regarding the joint Russian-Chinese military exercises, Rumsfeld played down the significance.
"I guess I don't find it notable," he said. "It is just a fact that countries get together and engage in various types of exercises."
Regarding the exercise's potential implications for Taiwan, Rumsfeld said, "We are obviously observing what's taking place, but I didn't see anything there that was threatening to Taiwan or anybody else."