Taiwan Arms Sale Is the Latest Test for US-China Ties
The U.S. administration has been consulting with Congress ahead of a formal announcement of the sale, which is likely to include Black Hawk helicopters and Patriot missiles, senior U.S. congressional aides told The Associated Press.
China opposes all arms sales to the island it considers a renegade province and will likely suspend U.S. military exchanges in response.
Speaking to reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu mentioned no specific measures under consideration, but warned that arms sales would "impair the larger interests of China-U.S cooperation."
"Once again, we urge the U.S. side to recognize the sensitivity of weapon sales to Taiwan and its gravity," Ma said.
Whatever action China takes, Taiwan is just one of a slew of sensitive issues over which the sides are likely to clash this year.
In the coming months, President Barack Obama is due at some point to meet with Tibet's exiled Dalai Lama, considered a separatist by Beijing, while tensions over China's massive trade surplus and accusations that it undervalues its currency to boost exports are also fueling protectionist sentiment.
Meanwhile, Washington is growing impatient with China's unwillingness to sign on to new nuclear sanctions against Iran and apparent willingness to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea despite Washington's demands that Pyongyang end its enrichment programs.
High-profile disagreements over human rights and measures to address climate change have also sharpened the tone of discussions. Just last week, Beijing warned of damage to ties over U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton relatively mild criticisms of China's Internet censorship and calls to investigate cyber attacks against Google.
"Selling arms to Taiwan is a mistake that will bring negative effects to the development of the China-U.S. relations and shows the American government's lack of strategic insight," Liu Jiangyong of Tsinghua University's Institute of International Studies said Tuesday.
The sale highlights Beijing's complicated relationship with Taiwan, which split from the mainland amid civil war in 1949 and has in recent years forged an increasingly independent identity.
Since the election of Taiwan's China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, Beijing has played down its threat to use force to bring the island under its control, while pressing ahead with economic dialogue and easing off its campaign to humiliate and isolate the island internationally. Direct scheduled flights have opened, Chinese tourists can now visit Taiwan, and a new round of working level talks on a free trade agreement began Tuesday in Beijing.
China sees such improvements as bolstering its argument against arms sales to Taiwan, which the U.S. has agreed to eventually end on condition the island is not threatened.
Many Taiwanese, however, consider Washington's willingness to sell defensive weapons as a sign of enduring U.S. commitment to a longtime ally and fellow democracy. Although the U.S. broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, it remains legally bound to ensure the island is capable of defending itself.
The arms sales are also driven in part by Beijing's booming military spending and the more than 1,000 ballistic missiles it has pointed at Taiwan. Chinese pressure has effectively prevented virtually all other countries from selling military equipment to Taiwan, making U.S. willingness to sell Taiwan weapons all the more crucial.
The expected arms sale to Taiwan would satisfy parts of an $11 billion arms package originally pledged to the self-governing island by former President George W. Bush in 2001.
The package has been parceled out in stages because of political and budgetary considerations in Taiwan and the United States. An official announcement is expected soon.
In 2008, China suspended most military dialogue with Washington after the Bush administration approved a $6.5 billion arms package to Taiwan that included guided missiles and attack helicopters.
Among upcoming exchanges that could suffer, Gen. Chen Bingde, the Chinese military's chief of the general staff, was due to visit the U.S., while U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had planned to come to China.
Washington has sought to increase the profile of such visits, along with lower level exchanges and cooperation programs, to help reduce suspicions and prime the sides for joint operations.
The sides had also planned to exchange visits by the heads of their space programs, and revive a bilateral dialogue on human rights.