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China Ties To Worsen With Big Arms Sale To Taiwan

by Jim Lobe

Arming Taiwan has long been a particularly contentious issue
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- U.S. -China relations, already frayed by this month's air collision which killed a Chinese fighter pilot, are likely to deteriorate further in the wake of President Bush's decision to sell Taiwan almost all of the weapons on its most recent shopping list.

Although Bush decided to withhold for now the single most controversial weapons system, Arleigh-Burke-class destroyers equipped with Aegis radar systems, requested by Taipei, he granted Taiwan several systems which Beijing has strongly warned against.

These include as many as eight diesel-powered submarines, 12 P-3C anti-submarine Orion aircraft, and four advanced Kidd-class destroyers. In addition, Bush agreed to provide technical briefings on an advanced anti-missile Patriot system which has not yet been developed, even for the U.S. military.

"It implies a much closer military-to-military co-operation (between Taiwan and the United States)," said John Gershman, a China specialist at Princeton University. "This is a significant change from the Clinton administration."

In its first official reaction, the Chinese foreign ministry denounced the decision as a "rude interference in China's internal affairs," and added that Beijing "reserves the complete right to take further actions" to express its displeasure.

Precisely what measures China has in mind is unclear. "China will be very upset, but probably not to the point of recalling its ambassador," said Robert Manning, head of Asia studies at the influential Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior Asia aide in the administration of Bush's father.

"There's going to be a downward spiral in the relationship," he added, noting that several more events, including a visit here by the exiled Dalai Lama of Tibet and fuel stops in the United States by Taiwanese prime minister Chen Shui-bian on his way to Central America and the Caribbean, over the next few months will likely add fuel to the fire.

The decision on the arms package was not unexpected, particularly after the incident earlier this month when a Chinese fighter collided with a U.S. reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea, forcing the U.S. plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan island.

Beijing released the crew almost two weeks later and only after it had received from Washington a written statement of regret which China construed as an apology for the incident. The plane itself remains in Chinese hands despite Washington's insistence that it be returned.

Although it was resolved diplomatically, the incident clearly strengthened hard-liners in the Bush administration who see China as a rival determined to reduce Washington's regional influence and power. There is some concern that it may also have bolstered anti-U.S. forces in China.

Arming Taiwan has long been a particularly contentious issue between the two nations. China has always viewed Taiwan as a renegade province that would have fallen to Communist rule if U.S. naval forces had not moved into the Straits of Taiwan after the defeat of the nationalist government and its flight to the island.

For much of the Cold War, Washington recognized Taiwan's "Republic of China" as China's only legitimate government and provided it with vast amounts of economic and military assistance. It was only in the late 1970s that it normalized relations with Beijing, formally recognizing that there was only "One China" and that Taiwan was part of China. At the same time, it maintained "informal" ties with Taiwan, including arms sales.

China is concerns that Taiwan may seek formal independence
Under pressure from China to reduce that relationship, the Reagan administration issued a joint communique with Beijing in 1982 which committed Washington to gradually reduce arms sales over the years to come and, in any case, not to exceed previous arms sales levels to Taiwan "either in qualitative or quantitative terms."

In exchange, China declared that "peaceful reunification" with the island was its "fundamental policy," but it refused to renounce the use of force against Taiwan. It has proposed negotiations with Taiwan on reunification from time to time, but, while bilateral economic ties have grown steadily, the island has refused to meet demands that it recognize Beijing's sovereignty.

Since 1982, Taiwan has been a major U.S. arms client. In one landmark decision during the election campaign in 1992, then-President George Bush approved a $6 billion sale of F-16 warplanes to Taiwan in a deal which Beijing argued was a blatant violation of the 1982 communique.

While the Clinton administration continued to sell weapons to Taiwan during the 1990s, it also rejected many of the island's requests, particularly for weapons, such as submarines, which were considered offensive, rather than defensive in nature.

That is why Bush's approval of many of the systems blocked by Clinton is so significant. "They're trying to send China a message that they're not the Clinton administration," said Manning. "I think they've succeeded in that."

As explained by administration officials, all of the weapons are being sent for defensive purposes. "We think there is nothing in this package for China to fear," a senior White House official, told reporters. The official insisted that all transfers were based on the threat posed by China to Taiwan.

A number of factors have bolstered Taiwan's case for more weapons over the past year, including the steady build-up by China of short-range missiles along the coast opposite the island; Beijing's acquisition of a number of Russian planes and warships, including submarines, which could be used in any assault on the island; and, most important, the publication by Beijing of a White Paper in early 2000 which made explicit the possibility of a Chinese military action if negotiations on reunification were thwarted.

While Taiwan has always been championed by right-wing Republicans, it has also attracted increasing support from Democrats in recent years, particularly as it has moved from a one-party dictatorship to a vibrant, multi-party democracy.

Last year's unprecedented election victory by the opposition only increased the level of public support for the island in the United States, just as it compounded China's concerns that, under Chen's government, Taiwan may seek formal independence.

It is in this context that Beijing is so concerned about U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. In China's view, if Taiwan feels that it can thwart a Chinese invasion or pierce a blockade, it will have little incentive to engage serious negotiations leading to reunification.

Still, Beijing can take some consolation in Bush's refusal for now to sell the more sophisticated Aegis-equipped destroyers which, according to Gershman, would have meant a "de facto military alliance" between Washington and Taipei.

"China will bluster at first," said Gershman, "but I don't think they'll react immediately, in part because they badly want the Olympics and the APEC summit (scheduled for October in Shangai)." After these events, however, China may respond in several ways that would rouse Washington's ire, including sending sensitive technology to Pakistan or Iraq and accelerating its arms build-up along the southern coast by deploying more missiles more quickly and buying more Russian ships and planes.

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Albion Monitor April 28, 2001 (

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