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Sale of Submarines to Taiwan Stirs Controversy in US

Eight members of the U.S. Congress have sent a letter to the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, demanding an explanation of his alleged opposition to the proposed sale of submarines to Taiwan. The commander says he does not oppose the sale, but is concerned about raising tensions between Taiwan and China.

In their letter, the members of congress from both political parties accuse Admiral William Fallon of contradicting Bush administration policy. They quote news reports as saying his Pacific Command has told Taiwan officials to reconsider the plan to buy eight diesel submarines. And they say that any such statements could further delay the Taiwan legislature's passage of a supplementary defense budget, which has already been five years in the making.

Admiral Fallon says he does not oppose the submarine sale. But he says while the budget debate continues in Taipei there could be other defense systems that the government there might find more affordable in the short term. And in a VOA telephone interview from his headquarters in Hawaii, the admiral expressed another concern.

"I'd like to see Taiwan take steps to increase its own defensive capabilities. I think that would be a very, very wise move that would be helpful to themselves and to us. At the same time, I'd like to not see them taking steps which would be clearly provocative to the mainland," he said.

One of the members of congress who signed the letter to the admiral, Republican Representative Rob Simmons, disagrees with that approach. "Taiwan's efforts to defend itself are going to be provocative to mainland China because mainland China wants Taiwan. And it's almost impossible to defend yourselves without being provocative. So I think we need to get over that little hurdle," he said.

Representative Simmons, who spent five years in East Asia as a young CIA officer in the 1970s, is in his third term in congress. He is a member of the House Armed Services Committee. The congressman says that because the locations of submarines are difficult to pinpoint, they serve as a deterrent to any attack.

"One can say that a submarine is an offensive weapon. I will tell you that, in the same breath, it's also a defensive weapon. And I see nothing offensive about Taiwan acquiring eight diesel submarines when the People's Republic of China is acquiring dozens and dozens of submarines," he said.

The congressman acknowledges there is a local angle to his interest in Taiwan's purchase of submarines. The state he represents, Connecticut, is home to submarine design and building facilities that could benefit from any Taiwanese submarine purchase. But he also says selling the submarines to Taiwan would be good for the island, and would contribute to stability across the Taiwan Straits.

Admiral Fallon says the U.S. goal is to dissuade China from taking any military action to force reunification with Taiwan. Tensions have risen in recent months as some politicians on Taiwan have talked about declaring independence, and some in China have renewed the threat of military action to prevent that. Admiral Fallon says with all the trade and investment across the Straits there are plenty of reasons for the two sides to work together and avoid armed conflict, and he says U.S. forces in the Pacific and the U.S. commitment to Taiwan's defense are part of that. "It seems to me there are many, many more reasons why the future ought to be one of cooperation as opposed to conflict," he said.

But China has been building its military capabilities in ways that experts say could make it capable of challenging U.S. forces in the region, and could improve its chances of success if it tries to take control of Taiwan by force. For now, most experts believe that possibility is remote, partly because the Beijing government does not want to do anything to disrupt the 2008 Olympics it is preparing to host. But after that, and with several more years of military buildup between now and then, some experts say China could make a move against Taiwan - a situation they say both the United States and Taiwan need to be ready to respond to.