President Bush said Wednesday that U.S. military force is "certainly an option" if China invades Taiwan.
The president also cautioned Taiwan not to provoke an attack by declaring independence from Beijing. "I would certainly hope that Taiwan would not do such a thing," Mr. Bush said in an interview with The Associated Press.
And the president said he believes the United States and China will work out their differences peacefully. "I believe the difficulties can be resolved," he said.
Mr. Bush spoke on the heels of China's detention of 24 U.S. spy plane crewmembers and his decision to sell arms to Taiwan.
His remarks on Taiwan were an unusually blunt warning to China that the United States is willing to use its military might to uphold the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. That law requires Washington to provide Taiwan with "such defense articles and defense services as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability."
China considers Taiwan a breakaway province that must be reunited with the mainland.
For decades, U.S. administrations have been purposely vague on whether the United States would actually go to war with China over Taiwan, as opposed to arming Taiwan well enough to enable the island to defend itself.
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Asked if he was willing to use military force if China attacked Taiwan, Mr. Bush said, "It's certainly an option."
He did not directly respond when asked if his position would change in the event that Taiwan declares independence.
"I will certainly hope that Taiwan would not do such. Our policy is a one-China policy that the two nations can resolve their disputes peacefully," Mr. Bush said. "And we need to work with the Taiwanese so that does not occur the breach of the one-China policy."
Asked again if military force is an option, he repeated, "It's certainly an option. The Chinese have got to understand that is clearly an option."
The president later told CNN that his remarks did not signal a hardening of U.S. policy on Taiwan, saying "I have said that I will do what it takes to help Taiwan defend itself We need a peaceful resolution of this issue."
The most recent use of the U.S. military in defense of Taiwan was in 1996, when President Clinton sent warships into the region after China began shelling in the direction of the island.
The destroyers and submarines Taiwan will be able to buy from the United States under Mr. Bush's plans will allow the island to upgrade its defenses against the expanding reach and sophistication of China's air and naval forces.
In Beijing, Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing told U.S. Ambassador Joseph Prueher on Wednesday that the arms sale should be canceled on grounds it would seriously effect U.S.Chinese cooperation on arms control and damage ties between the two nations, state television reported.
The decision to sell ships, submarines and aircraft to Taiwan "will have a grave impact on China-U.S. cooperation in the sphere of non-proliferation and bring devastating damage to China-U.S. relations," Li said.
Taiwan will not be getting destroyers equipped with the advanced Aegis radar and battle management system, but can buy four older Kidd-class destroyers with less capable radars. China had cautioned Washington that a deal involving the Aegis system would have grave implications.
On CBS News' The Early Show, Mr. Bush dismissed concerns that the sales would escalate tensions with China.
"I upheld our obligations in a very serious fashion. The Chinese must understand I'm a person who does in office what I say I will do. That doesn't mean we can't have good relations," he said.
The Washington Post also reported Wednesday that Mr. Bush said he will end the annual review of arms sales to Taiwan, ending a policy used by the United States since 1982 to provide the island with weapons.
Instead, in what could be seen as a conciliatory gesture to China, the Bush administration will consider arms sales on an "as-needed basis," avoiding a yearly flap with the Chinese over the weapons sales.
Meanwhile, Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, released a statement Wednesday thanking the United States for the latest arms package.
"I want to thank the U.S. government, Congress and our friends, for their concerns about the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait and Taiwan's security," said Chen, who was elected one year ago.
On Capitol Hill, reaction to the weapons package was mixed.
Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said Mr. Bush had made it clear to China that the Aegis radar system could be approved for sale to Taiwan later if China did not reduce its ballistic missile force aimed at Taiwan.
"The Bush administration has approved the most robust package of defensive weapons approved for Taiwan in over a decade," DeLay said.
The Democratic leader in the House, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, said Mr. Bush should have made the Aegis system available without delay in response to China's "military buildup and other provocative acts." He cited the example of China's detention of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane and its crew.
The approved arms package includes eight diesel-powered submarines, which were among Taiwan's highest defense priorities and which China views as a serious threat to its national security. Taiwan has been requesting submarines since 1982 but had been turned down as recently as a year ago.
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