US deploys two aircraft carriers close to Taiwan

'RESPONSIBLY POSITIONED': Washington was mum on whether the violent Chinese crackdown in Tibet would have an impact on the presidential election

By Charles Snyder  /  STAFF REPORTER IN WASHINGTON , AND AGENCIES

Fri, Mar 21, 2008 - Page 1

Two US aircraft carriers, the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Nimitz, have been sent to the Taiwan region for training exercises during tomorrow's election, a US defense official said on Wednesday.

The two carriers were "responsibly positioned" in the Pacific Ocean somewhere east of Taiwan and would remain in place through Saturday's presidential election and referendum on UN membership, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

He declined to elaborate on the positions of the two vessels.

"We feel we are responsibly positioned at this time," the defense official said, adding that the two carriers were not close enough to Taiwan to provoke China, but would be able to "respond if there's a provocative situation."

Navy officials said the Kitty Hawk left its base in Japan en route to Hawaii on Tuesday and would continue on to the continental US later for decommissioning.

In Taipei, the Ministry of National Defense did not comment on the deployment.

American Institute in Taiwan Director Stephen Young said that the vessels were merely making a routine patrol in the Strait and that it had nothing to do with tomorrow's election.

Meanwhile, high-level US State Department officials on Wednesday refused to speculate on how the uprising in Tibet and the violent response by Beijing authorities might affect tomorrow's election in Taiwan, but the officials once again criticized the planned referendum on UN membership.

The officials were responding to a flurry of interest in the Taiwanese elections by journalists in Washington in view of reports from Taiwan about the local impact of the Tibetan uprising and repeated comments by department officials on the referendum.

Meanwhile, four Taiwan supporters in the House of Representatives wrote a letter to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday, urging her to support the referendum.

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill sidestepped a question about whether events in Tibet could have "unexpected implications" for the Taiwanese election and "negative implications" for cross-strait relations.

"I'm not going to handicap ... make judgements ... about how the people in Taiwan are going to make their vote. They have information. They'll look at information and I'm not going to start predicting what things that happen in the world can affect their vote," he said.

"Obviously ... we look forward to a free and fair election in Taiwan. We have every reason to expect it to be. But I am not really in a position to tell you what is affecting the vote and what is not affecting the vote," Hill said.

He also said he had nothing to add to the criticism that Rice has leveled at the referendum recently.

"How [the elections] are conducted is a matter for the people of Taiwan to accomplish. I'm not going to give them advice on what to do in their elections," he said.

US State Department spokesman Tom Casey, however, took the opportunity to level yet one more barb at the referendum.

"As we've indicated," he told a reporter at the department's regular daily briefing, "the United States is opposed to the specific referendum [on UN entry under the name `Taiwan']. We believe it is unnecessary and unhelpful and will not have an effect on Taiwan's ability to join the UN or other organizations requiring statehood."

Casey also said the US "does look forward to a free and fair election in Taiwan. And we will work within the parameters of our existing relationship with whoever is elected by the Taiwan [sic] people."

The congressional letter to Rice was signed by representatives Robert Andrews, a Democrat, and Scott Garrett of New Jersey, John Linder of Georgia and Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, who are Republicans. Andrews and Garrett have been among Taiwan's biggest champions on Capitol Hill.

"We strongly urge the United States to support the referendum," the lawmakers said.

"The Taiwanese people have the right -- as all people do -- to self-determination," the letter said. "However, the ability to exercise that right is severely compromised when a nation's largest ally turns its back."

"For too long Taiwan has stood its ground as a bulwark of democracy against the encroaching aspirations of an authoritarian communist regime. We should not condemn or oppose the dreams of those who want only to remain free and take their place in the international community," the letter said.

Additional reporting by Jenny W. Hsu

Also See: Activists condemn crackdown

Also See: Presidential election 2008: 1 days to go: Let's postpone the election, Hsieh says