The Reagan administration yesterday moved ahead with its first formal request to Congress to approve the sale of $60 million worth of aircraft spare parts for Taiwan despite previous warnings from Peking that such a move could damage U.S.-Chinese relations.
A Pentagon statement announcing the intended sale said that it "will not affect the basic military balance in the region" between mainland China and the nationalist government on Taiwan. A State Department spokesman later stressed that there were "no weapons of any kind involved."
The sale involves spare parts and other supplies for U.S.-designed aircraft that have been in Taiwan's arsenal for many years. U.S. officials believe that Taiwan has a legitimate need for such equipment and that supplying it is consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
Peking had no immediate reaction to the sale, but the U.S. intention to continue even this relatively low-level military relationship with Taiwan is bitterly resented by the communist government, which has indicated that it might choose to downgrade its diplomatic and political relations with Washington unless a solution is found to the arms sale question.
The State Department announced its intention last December to proceed with the spare parts sale, and Washington and Peking have since been involved in intensive negotiations to resolve the dispute. Yesterday, State Department officials said those discussions are continuing, so there is no indication about how serious a breach, if any, may be forthcoming in U.S.-Chinese relations.
Officials said they hoped Peking would recognize that this sale had been planned for some time but said they had no real feel for how Peking was going to react.
The Peking regime maintains that such sales are inconsistent with the U.S. decision in 1979 to recognize Peking as the rightful government of China and to sever official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Peking also views the issue as a matter of principal, as an interference in internal Chinese affairs and as a test of U.S.-Chinese relations.
The Reagan administration and many conservatives in Congress argue that the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 specifically compels the United States to continue helping Taiwan "to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability."
In January, the administration decided not to sell Taiwan an advanced FX fighter plane that the nationalist government wanted. The administration argued that the military threat to Taiwan had not grown and that there was "no military need" for a new aircraft to replace Taiwan's current force of F5E fighters, which are being co-produced in Taiwan under U.S. license.
China had bitterly opposed the sale of any new fighter plane, but even U.S. rejection of such plans has not quieted Chinese objections to the sale of any military equipment.
Continuing tension, even about the issue of supplying spare parts, has potentially great political and strategic importance because of its possible impact on the Chinese leadership, which has staked its foreign policy on improved relations with Washington, and because China is viewed as an important ally in the administration's anti-Soviet strategy.
Also, China has held off negotiating any enhanced military cooperation with the United States while the Taiwan issue lingers.
Congress will have 30 days to act on the administration's request, which will be approved unless both houses of Congress reject it.