In a surprise turnaround, the US State Department told Congress on Thursday it had approved the sale of six major packages of weaponry to Taiwan and planned to send an official notification that would all but assure the sales would go through this year.
The action effectively ended the freeze on arms sales to Taiwan that the administration of US President George W. Bush imposed nearly a year ago.
In a hastily called meeting with congressional staffers of the committees involved in the arms sales, State Department officials gave the committees a “draft notification,” which covered six of the eight weapons systems that Taiwan asked for.
Although no final decision was reached at the meeting, sources involved in the talks said further work was planned yesterday.
It was not clear when final actions and official notifications would be made. But the general feeling is both sides will be able to work out the details shortly, allowing the official notification to come within days, and the sales to proceed.
“There are six cases before Congress in the pre-consultation phase, and the executive branch is hoping that we will be able to clear them expeditiously,” one congressional staffer involved in the talks said.
Underlining his optimism, the source said that “congressional support for the legitimate defense needs of Taiwan has been demonstrated over the years.”
“Everybody feels this can be cleared quickly,” the source said.
The notifications excluded Taiwan’s requests for design services for eight diesel-electric submarines.
In addition, the State Department package reportedly reduced Taiwan’s request for six PAC-3 air-defense missile battery, with the remaining batteries likely to be approved later.
Taiwan’s request for 66 advanced F-16 fighter aircraft were not included in the packages and were never seriously considered by the Bush administration.
It is unclear which six of the seven weapons systems out of the original eight requested by Taiwan — after the submarines have been eliminated — were approved by the administration.
The remaining seven are: Javelin anti-tank missiles, sea-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles, the PAC-3’s, Apache Helicopters, Black Eagle mine-sweeping helicopters, P3-C anti-submarine aircraft and various spare parts.
Earlier in the day, congressional sources said that if no objections against the sale were raised and the two preliminary procedures were waived, it was “conceivable” that the official notification would get to Congress yesterday.
If no congressperson raised an objection, approval could be almost instantaneous. That would allow US and Taiwanese officials to negotiate the final deal in time to capture the appropriations for the weapons systems approved by the Legislative Yuan late last year.
Although the sources did not identify any snags that might arise to delay the sales, State Department officials were expected to face some tough questions.
“The staff has a lot of questions about the process by which we came to this juncture,” one staffer close to the issue said.
“We have a lot of questions as to why the administration refused to brief us on their evolving arms sales policy toward Taiwan until now,” the staffer said.
“So, for starters, we have those issues to get past, and whether or not there are any technical issues with respect to any of the proposed notifications that require some degree of due diligence on our part and responsiveness on the part of state and DOD [the US Department of Defense],” the source said.
He and others felt that the timing reflects the administration’s desire to get the process going before Congress adjourns.
While the adjournment date was set for Friday last week, it has been held up by the global financial crisis and congressional attempts to approve a US$700 billion proposed bailout to deal with the crisis. In the wake of the House’s rejection of the bailout on Monday, the session has been extended long enough for the notification process to begin.
In addition, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid indicated on Thursday a possible lame-duck session in the middle of next month after the presidential elections, which would give Congress more time to consider the arms sales to Taiwan if needed.
Observers in Washington say they began to get hints that the notifications were coming early last week, when the administration was in the process of giving Congress 10 last-minute notifications of arms sales to several foreign countries.
But word began to spread on Tuesday night, toward the end of a three-day meeting of Taiwanese and US defense officials at the annual defense conference of the US-Taiwan Business Council in Amelia Island, Florida.
It is not clear whether that meeting hastened the decision. The council is chaired by Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy defense secretary who was instrumental in the Bush administration’s April 2001 decision to sell Taiwan the arms packages involved in Thursday’s meeting on Capitol Hill.
Wolfowitz continues to maintain some clout with administration officials and was “very active in talking with a number of people around town in the past few months,” a source close to Wolfowitz said.
Also See: EDITORIAL: The end of the freeze
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