Arms Sale 'Won't Hurt Ties'

A planned arms sale to Taiwan is unlikely to significantly affect U.S. relations with China.
2011-09-23
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A U.S.-made F-16 fighter lands near Tainan city in Taiwan during a drill, April 12, 2011.
A U.S.-made F-16 fighter lands near Tainan city in Taiwan during a drill, April 12, 2011.
AFP

While China has stepped up its traditional rhetoric in the wake of a U.S. $5.8 billion arms sale by Washington to rival Taiwan, analysts say both sides are more focused on improving bilateral ties than on stoking regional tensions.

Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi hit out this week at what he said was "the wrong decision," calling on Washington to revoke the planned arms sale immediately, official media reported.

"This has ... grossly interfered in China's internal affairs and seriously undermined China's security, its endeavor to achieve peaceful reunification and China-U.S. relations," Yang said.

"The Chinese side urges the U.S. side to ... correct the mistake of selling weapons to Taiwan, immediately revoke the above-mentioned wrong decision [and] stop arms sales to Taiwan," he was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency.

But analysts said Yang's comments were carefully calculated to satisfy military hawks at home, while reminding pro-independence Taiwanese of their bigger, stronger neighbor.

Taiwan has been governed separately from mainland China since the ruling Kuomintang Nationalist Party (KMT) fled there after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949.

However, Beijing still regards the island as part of its territory and has threatened military action should the island formally declare independence.

Arms package

Under the terms of the arms package announced this week, Taipei will receive new radar, weapons systems, pilot training, spare parts, and structural upgrades.

But advanced technologies linked to the F-16 C/D models will not be going to the island, with analysts citing concerns that the latest U.S. military technology could fall into Chinese hands.

"Every time the Americans [sell arms to Taiwan], China protests," added Xie Jiaye, head of the California-based America-China Association for Science & Technology Exchange.

"But these protests never amount to anything much."

Analysts of the bilateral relationship, which has been strained in recent months by concerns over China's military ambitions, economic disputes, and Beijing's human rights record, said the issue of arms sales to Taiwan appeared to have reached an equilibrium for the time being.

China broke off defense ties with the United States in January 2010 over American plans to sell Taiwan more than U.S. $6 billion worth of arms, including Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles and mine sweepers.

This time around, Washington has stopped short of a plan to sell 66 new F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, and Taipei will have to settle for a retrofit of existing planes.

Both sides now seem anxious to maintain a stable relationship following a series of high-level military and political exchanges, analysts said.

Obliged by law

The United States is obliged by its own laws to supply arms to Taiwan despite the fact that Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979.

But Xia said U.S. officials have avoided upsetting a careful diplomatic balance between the two sides, who have never officially ended the state of civil war between them.

"Of course, this is a fairly sensitive issue in the U.S.-China relationship, and it's a long-running one," said Xia.

"Every time they sell arms to Taiwan, this will get a strong reaction from the Chinese side. However, whenever they do sell weapons to Taiwan, it's always weapons of defense, rather than weapons that could be used offensively," he said.

"This I see as a balancing point."

According to Zhu, Beijing's rhetoric wasn't just aimed at Washington, however.

"I think the aim of Beijing's protest is partly to change the U.S. attitude, but also partly in the hope of influencing the forthcoming elections in Taiwan," he said.

The opposition Democractic Progressive Party (DPP) has displaced the KMT from power several times since the island became fully democratic in 1996 with its first direct presidential election.

Incumbent KMT president Ma Ying-jeou, who is credited with smoothing relations across the Taiwan Strait, and boosting cultural, economic and transportation links, will seek re-election in January 2012.

"If [Beijing's] protest isn't seen to be strong enough, then this will give an advantage to the DPP," Zhu said.

Reported by Yang Jiadai for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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