A fair chunk of official Washington went into overdrive late this week to send a message to Taiwan: Don't cancel your big order for Boeing Co. passenger jets just because you're mad at the United States over its conduct in the China-Taiwan flare-up.
Following reports that Taiwan's flagship airline was planning to award one of the biggest aircraft deals of the year to Boeing's European rival Airbus Industrie, the White House, Commerce Department, U.S. Trade Representative's office and several members of Congress are admonishing the Taiwanese against rejecting Boeing out of pique at Washington.
To plead Boeing's case face-to-face, Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) is flying today to Taipei, where he'll meet with top Taiwanese officials, including President Lee Deng Hui.
It's a striking example of how lucrative aircraft orders--on which thousands of jobs depend--get mixed up in high diplomacy, especially in Asia. Seattle-based Boeing has often paid a price by losing Chinese orders for planes when the United States gets crosswise with China. In Japan, Boeing enjoys an edge because of Tokyo's close ties with Washington.
But Taiwan has generally avoided accusations that it makes aircraft procurement decisions on geopolitical grounds--until last month, when tensions rose with Beijing over Taiwan's insistence that its relations with the mainland be handled on a "special state-to-state" basis. Although China grudgingly accepts self-government in Taiwan, it regards the island as a renegade province, and Chinese officials furiously denounced the new Taiwanese stance as a provocative move toward independence--a view shared to a considerable degree by the Clinton administration, which has chided Taipei for threatening the region's stability.
Unhappy as Taiwan is over the U.S. position, both the Taiwanese government and its state-controlled China Airlines deny that politics is influencing the decision about whether to buy 12 Boeing 777 jets worth about $2 billion, as planned, or to go with A-340s from Airbus, which has been aggressively courting the Taiwanese.
"We haven't given any pressure whatsoever. It is entirely up to China Airlines to decide on plane purchases based on their needs," Transportation Minister Lin Fong-cheng told reporters, according to the Associated Press. Scott Shih, the airline's spokesman, was quoted as saying the airline reached a consensus about which planes to buy six weeks ago, well before the confrontation arose with China, and will probably announce its contract awards next week.
Soothing Boeing's ruffled supporters somewhat, China Airlines said yesterday it will purchase "around 13" cargo aircraft from Boeing for about $1.95 billion.
But U.S. officials and lawmakers, alerted to reports that Airbus is close to winning the contest for the passenger-jet contract, are skeptical of Taiwan's denials that its desire to punish the United States is playing a part.
Several top administration officials have written or called Taiwanese leaders. "I seek your assistance to ensure that the final decision is based solely on technical and commercial merit," U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky wrote to Premier Vincent Siew."
Washington state lawmakers are going further. Rejecting Boeing would be "a big mistake" for Taiwan, said Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), "because it was the United States that put two aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Strait two years ago when China was giving them a rough time. We're saying, 'Don't decide it on political grounds, do it on commercial grounds--and don't forget who your indispensable friend is.' "