Two senior officials of the State Department's East Asian bureau are being removed, apparently in a deal to obtain Sen. Jesse A. Helms' approval for the Senate confirmation of their boss, Assistant Secretary of State John Holdridge.
Congressional and State Department sources described the changes as connected with Helms' sudde and surprising decision last Tuesday to drop his opposition to the confirmation of Holdridge.
The North Carolina Republican had served notice that he wanted "a housecleaning in the Asia bureau" to guarantee that President Reagan's commitments to Taiwan would be carried out.
Those being removed are two of the four most senior assistants to Holdridge, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael A. Armacost and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ginger Lew. They were informed early this week, according to the sources, that replacements will be taking their jobs in the near future.
A spokesman for the East Asian and Pacific Affairs Bureau said Armacost and Lew were being removed under personnel plans long in the works. Armacost, a veteran Foreign Service officer, was said to be under consideration for another high post. Lew is a non-career appointee of the Carter administration who apparently will leave the State Department.
Sources close to Helms said Tuesday that Armacost and Lew would be ousted in an understanding reached on Holdridge's confirmation and that they probably would be replaced by two of Helms' choices.
They are Carl Ford, a Democratic staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has worked for Sen. John H. Glenn (D-Ohio), and Gaston J. Sigur, director of the Institute for Sino-Soviet Studies at George Washington University.
Holdridge informed Helms by telephone last Tuesday that Ford and Sigur would be acceptable to him in senior posts, according to a State Department source. But last night both men said they are not interested in the jobs at this time.
Ford, who served in the State Department for six weeks early in the Reagan adminstration and then returned to Captiol Hill, said he plans to remain where he is. Sigur said he is "not at all" interested in a job as deputy to Holdridge.
It was unclear last night whether Helms had actually gained power in the East Asian bureau as a result of the maneuvering, or had only been permitted a symbolic victory. But the very suggestion that the feisty Helms has obtained leverage over highly sensitive jobs was enough to bring widespread dismay among State Department veterans.
Helms has campaigned vigorously for upgrading U.S. relations with Taiwan, and has charged that Holdridge, a career State Department official, has moved U.S. policy too close to the People's Republic of China.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Holdridge's nomination in an 11-to-1 vote May 5, but Helms, the lone dissenter, filed a report charging that "in many ways, Mr. Holdridge seems even more determined than the Carter administration. Asia strategists to push the United States rapidly and inexorably into the Peking camp."
An administration legislative aide said the White House was anxious to avoid a Helms floor fight against Holdridge on the Taiwan-Peking issue, even though there was virtually no prospect that Helms would prevail. Such a public row about these highly sensitive issues was particuarly unwelcome on the eve of Secretary of State Alexander J. Haig's trip to Peking scheduled for mid-June.
Last week, according to State Department sources, Helms sent a letter to Haig dealing with the Holdridge nomination. The precise contents are unknown, and Helms was unavailable for comment.
It is clear, however, that Holdridge telephoned Helms Tuesday, and that appointments for persons recommended by the senator were discussed.
Shortly after 3 p.m. Tuesday, as the Senate was preparing to adjourn for the day, Helms asked Senate Republican Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (Tenn.), according to Senate aides, "Howard, aren't you going to confirm Holdridge?"
That conversation was not recorded in the Congressional Record, which does not show that Baker obtained unanimous consent to take up the nomination of Holdridge, who was confirmed without discussion or objection.
It was unclear what personal objection Helms had, if any, to either Armacost or Lew.
Armacost joined the Nixon administration after coming to Washington as a White House Fellow in 1969 and was servinig as acting assistant secretary of state for the East Asian bureau until Holdridge's confirmation. sLew is a Chinese-American hired after a public advertisement for talented people conducted by the Carter administration's head of the bureau.
Both aides are highly regarded in the department as professionals.