The US House of Representatives has given overwhelming approval to a bill intended to make it easier and more cost-effective for Taiwan to buy eight diesel-electric submarines from the US by dividing the design and construction phases and giving Taipei more options in the purchase.
The bill also contains provisions to enhance military ties between the US and Taiwan, and to penalize foreign firms that sell arms to China that could be used to attack Taiwan and engage US forces coming to Taiwan's aid.
The provisions are part of legislation that would authorize Pentagon spending and programs for fiscal 2007, which begins on Oct. 1.
The House approved the bill, 396 to 31, on Thursday after two days of lengthy debate.
The bill now goes to the Senate, where the future of these provisions are uncertain.
The Senate traditionally eliminates such narrowly-focused provisions in its authorization bills, and last year it rejected provisions identical to those in the current bill regarding US-Taiwan military relations and arms sales to China.
The diesel submarine provision is a new one this year, and supporters are hopeful that it will survive. The Senate is expected to take up its version of the bill later this month.
The submarine provision would reaffirm that the US policy is to sell the subs to Taiwan and requires the Pentagon to make available information to Taiwan on various options to help the country make good decisions on the purchase. It also calls on the Legislative Yuan to "make every effort to support the president of Taiwan" by approving funding for the purchases.
The amendment was sponsored by Republican Representative Rob Simmons from Connecticut, whose election district is the home of the Electric Boat division of the giant defense contractor, General Dynamics. Electric Boat, the main supplier of submarines to the US Navy, based in Groton, Connecticut, and would likely be where Taiwan's subs would be built.
Simmons, who was a CIA officer in Taiwan in the 1970s and whose biography says he is fluent in Mandarin, outlined his plan for the subs purchase in a speech in Taiwan in February.
His idea would separate the relatively low-cost design portion of the work from the expensive construction portion, to give Taiwan a chance to reassess the project after the design is completed.
But sources say many US Navy officers oppose the sale, and some reports say support for the plan is waning in Washington, amid fears that successful construction of the subs would sap support for the US' all-nuclear sub fleet, which is far more expensive than the diesel option.
However, supporters of the Simmons' plan in Congress dispute those reports and say official US Navy opinion is still positive.
Simmons also disputes the US$12 billion price tag that the Bush administration has put on the subs, saying Electric Boat estimates it can build them for US$8 billion, assuming no cost overruns.
The defense appropriation bill would also mandate an exchange program between senior US and Taiwanese military officers and officials to improve Taiwan's defenses against any Chinese attack. It would also require that visits to Taiwan be included in a National Defense University program of field study for promising officers.
It would also penalize foreign firms that sell China arms or technology that "could be used to threaten the US or undermine the security of Taiwan or the stability of the West Pacific region."