Taiwan Arms Sale Heats Up Simmering Row

Trade relations between the U.S. and China appear to be hitting a rough patch, with China publicly threatening to impose sanctions on U.S. companies participating in the arms sales to Taiwan, leading some observers to express concern over the growing war of words between Washington and Beijing.

While China’s opposition to the U.S. military’s support of Taiwan is well established, the level of protest emanating from Beijing over the past week has brought new tensions to the U.S.-China relationship which spans the increasingly interdependent economic relationship between the two counties.

"[W]e have a wide-ranging relationship with China. It’s one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. And within our strategic and economic dialogue, we touch on a wide range of subjects," said Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley on Monday, in an attempt to call attention to the breadth of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship.

The past month has marked a number of setbacks in the relationship between Beijing and Washington, beginning with the Jan. 12 announcement by Google that it would cease censoring its search results in response to the hacking of several e-mail accounts.

Google’s announcement brought a war of words between Beijing and Washington as the Chinese accused the U.S. of "information imperialism" and the U.S. – most prominently in a statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – called unprecedented attention to China’s alleged Internet censorship, intellectual property theft, and cyber-espionage.

The threat to sanction U.S. companies participating in the upcoming arms sale to Taiwan came after last week’s announcement that the Pentagon had approved a $6.4 billion arms deal with Taiwan that included Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters, mine-hunting ships, and other weaponry but did not include upgraded F16 fighter jets or submarines – weapons which Beijing has been intent on preventing the U.S. from selling to Taiwan.

"From the military point of view, since China has essentially achieved military supremacy in the Taiwan strait to deter Taiwan from seeking independence, the military implications of these sales are next to zero. But they are a psychological boost to Taiwan and a psychological blow to Chinese nationalists," Chas Freeman, a retired high-ranking U.S. diplomat and former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told IPS.

The arms sale to Taiwan was initiated under the George W. Bush administration and mandated under U.S. law in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act – a law which requires any administration "to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character." The strong response from Beijing was seen by experts as both an attempt to deter the future sale of more advanced weapons systems to Taiwan and a stronger China seeking to flex its political muscle.

The Aug. 17, 1982, Joint Communiqué limited both the types and quantity of arms which the U.S. could sell to Taiwan, but 10 years later U.S. President George H.W. Bush made the largest arms sale to date between the U.S. and Taiwan.

"The continued propensity of the U.S. to sell weapons to Taiwan and not to keep our word on that has come to be seen by the Chinese as quite exasperating," said Freeman, who also served as Richard Nixon’s translator in his 1972 trip to China.

"It’s not the $6.4 billion sale that is disturbing as it is the fact that the [Obama] administration is considering a further sale of F16s, a more advanced version [than Taiwan has already received] and has also kept alive a gesture from the Bush administration from 2001 when out of the blue the administration offered eight diesel submarines even though we don’t make them anymore," Freeman continued.

Experts have been careful to warn that while the rhetoric from Beijing has been heated, the actual actions taken by the government might fall well short of a full-scale trade war or a serious rupture in the China-U.S. bilateral relationship.

"When a country does something which China virulently dislikes, China can take short-term punitive actions which hurt somebody or some business in the country they don’t like," Robert A. Kapp, a Washington State-based China business consultant and former president of the U.S.-China Business Council in Washington, D.C., told IPS.

"However, these measures tend to have a very limited half life. The gesture is made. The pain is duly inflicted. The appearance back home in China of having ‘punished’ errant foreigners is maintained but in the larger scheme of things, three to four years, the economic effects have tended to be very limited and transitory," Kapp continued.

Further clouding the U.S.-China relationship is the upcoming meeting between the Dalai Lama and President Obama.

White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters, "The Dalai Lama is an internationally respected religious and cultural leader and the president will meet with him in that capacity," he said.

The developing "political, military, and economic tensions," as Freeman characterized them, in the U.S.-China relationship leave some analysts concerned that domestic pressures may be pushing both China and the U.S. to adopt more protective trade policies.

China has sought to shift the investments from its balance of payments surplus away from U.S. dollars and into equities and commodities and Obama has been under pressure to address the growing trade deficit with China.

While tensions have been growing between the U.S. and China, Taiwan-China relations seemed to be improving with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou pushing for a Taiwan-China trade pact.

"The irony is that China-Taiwan interactions are actually going well, so why are the U.S. and China confronting each other over Taiwan? The U.S. has actually had these sales pending for a long time and they decided to get them out of the way. No time was probably a good time," said Freeman.

(Inter Press Service)