US, China at Odds Over Taiwan Arms Deal
William Ide | Washington 15 January 2010
China is warning the United States that the recently announced sale of air defense missiles to Taiwan could damage trust between Washington and Beijing, and that further protests might follow. China has called on the United States to end all arms sales to the island, but the missile deal is one of several advanced weapons systems that are likely to be approved by the U.S. Congress in the coming months.
The planned U.S. sale of Patriot air defense missiles to Taiwan is part of a larger package of high-end military hardware that originally was approved by former U.S. president George W. Bush.
Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that when the package was first announced in 2008, China suspended military-to-military exchanges with the United States and dialogue on non-proliferation issues.
"I would expect that the reaction [now] might be close to what we saw in October 2008, but I don't think it would go beyond six months," she said.
Since the arms deal was announced last week by the Pentagon, Chinese officials have voiced almost daily opposition. On Tuesday, China announced it had successfully carried out a test of military technology to shoot down missiles.
State media in China have reported that Chinese Internet users are calling for possible sanctions against U.S. companies that sell arms to Taiwan.
It is unclear how far China will go.
Western military analysts say it is unlikely that Washington will back down because of Beijing's opposition.
Michael Green is an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The administration would be making a huge mistake to suggest that it is now going to back down on arms sales or other issues because of the rhetoric coming out of Beijing," he said. "And the key challenge will be not to back down while managing a stable relationship."
Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States formally recognizes only the Beijing government. The act also obligates Washington to sell weapons to Taiwan to help it meet its defensive needs and to come to the aid of Taiwan, if it is attacked.
China and Taiwan split in 1949 amid a civil war, and Beijing regards the self-ruled island to be part of its territory.
China has at times threatened to use force to bring the island under its control, and it has an estimated 1,300 ballistic missiles positioned opposite the island along its eastern coast.
Taiwan already has Patriot missile batteries deployed on the island, but the sale of missiles approved last week is for a more advanced version of the weapon.
U.S. officials say the White House is preparing to notify Congress about a package of other advanced weapons systems that Washington plans to sell to Taiwan. That notification, according to some reports, is expected to come soon.
One of the biggest questions is whether the United States will sell advanced F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.
Military analysts say the sale could go forward and that, if it does, it will likely spark the strongest reaction from China, given the offensive and defensive capabilities of fighter jets.
Officials under Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou say the planes are needed to replace older models the island purchased in the early-1990s. In 2008, the United States canceled a deal to sell 66 of the jets to Taiwan after China strongly objected.
The proposed sale of advance weaponry to Taiwan is one of several issues that are expected to test ties between Washington and Beijing during the next few months, which analyst Bonnie Glaser says are likely to be bumpy.
"I think we will see ups and downs," she added. "We will see more trade spats; we will see the [U.S.] President meeting with the Dalai Lama; we will see arms sales to Taiwan. But I think we will also see that leaders on both sides understand that there are critical issues that we need to work on, that we can't put the relationship on hold."
Speaking at a congressional hearing this week on China security developments, U.S. Navy Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said that in recent meetings with Chinese military officials, Washington has stressed the need for constancy in their military-to-military dialogue, regardless of differences.
"We'll be testing the maturity of that military-to-military relationship in the future, not just over our legal obligation to conduct Taiwan arms sales, but [also] over other issues between our governments as well," he noted.
U.S. officials say the contrast of China's growing military capability and its stated desire for a peaceful and stable environment in the region is something that is being watched closely by many in the Asia-Pacific region.
Wallace Gregson, U.S. assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, notes that while China is making welcomed contributions, helping with peacekeeping and counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, there are concerns about the pace, scope and lack of transparency of China's military modernization.
"The People's Liberation Army is changing from a military that is designed for protracted wars of attrition on its own territory to one that is developed for winning short-duration, high-intensity conflicts on its periphery against high-tech adversaries," he explained.
Even so, U.S. officials also note that the rise of a strong and prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations and they hope that differences can be resolved through dialogue.
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