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US Proposal to Sell Taiwan Arms Risks China Backlash at Awkward Time

  • Ralph Jennings

FILE - A Taiwan Air Force F-16 fighter jet takes off from a closed section of highway during the annual Han Kuang military exercises in Chiayi, central Taiwan, Sept. 16, 2014. China called the U.S. sale of $1.4 billion in arms to Taiwan, announced Thursday, a "wrong move."

The U.S. government’s approval Thursday of $1.42 billion in advanced weaponry for Taiwan risks a stiff backlash from China after a year of strained relations between Beijing and the self-ruled island, which sees the mainland as its chief military rival.

China's foreign ministry protested Friday to the U.S. and asked that the arms deal be canceled. The ministry called it damaging to Chinese sovereignty.

Experts believe the proposed arms sale, a first from the United States to Taiwan since the approval of an $1.83 billion package in December 2015, is likely to anger China, which has tried since April to get along with President Donald Trump despite a rocky start. China sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and resents other countries for helping arm it.

“Mainland China will not be happy about today’s notification, but Taiwan has a right to its self-defense,” said Sean King, senior vice president of New York political consultancy Park Strategies.

China and the United States have tried to get along since Trump met his counterpart Xi Jinping in Florida in April. Trump voiced support for Beijing’s view that Taiwan belongs to China in February after coming under Chinese fire for accepting a phone call in December from Taiwan’s president.

Trump set aside the Taiwan issue in April to work with China on containing North Korea’s missile program, but he expected more from Beijing, analysts in Taiwan say.

The proposal Thursday to sell arms also follows a decline in China-Taiwan ties over the past year. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, who took office in May 2016, rejects Beijing’s condition for dialogue that both sides view themselves as part of “one China.” The two sides had talked regularly over the previous eight years.

During Tsai’s term, an increasingly bristly China has established ties with two countries that once recognized Taiwan diplomatically and pressured others to remove Taiwan’s legal name from overseas trade offices. It passed an aircraft carrier around Taiwan in December and January. Last year, the number of group tourist arrivals from China dropped by about 18 percent over 2015.

FILE - Crew members of the Taiwan Coast Guard aim their weapons during an offshore anti-terrorism drill outside Keelung harbor in New Taipei City, Taiwan.
FILE - Crew members of the Taiwan Coast Guard aim their weapons during an offshore anti-terrorism drill outside Keelung harbor in New Taipei City, Taiwan.

Security concerns

Those moves, plus Beijing’s military buildup – including a new aircraft carrier and a 10,000-ton naval destroyer over the past three months – are raising concerns in Taipei about military defense. China has the world’s third largest armed forces compared to Taiwan’s, which research database Globalfirepower.com ranks at No. 19.

“President Trump after just five months in office has announced his first arms package to Taiwan, an ample gesture of attention to Taiwan’s security,” said Taiwan foreign ministry spokesperson Eleanor Wang. “This not only helps strengthen peace and stability [with China], but it will also help security in the Asia Pacific.”

The arms package, which must get approval from the U.S. Congress to take effect, calls for selling eight items, including MK-48 torpedoes, Taiwan’s defense ministry said in a statement. The torpedoes would cost $250 million. Washington also proposes selling high-speed anti-radiation missiles for $147.5 million, early warning radar surveillance technical support for $400 million, and at least four other items.

China’s protested the previous two U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Beijing suspended military exchange visits with the United States in 2010 after the U.S. government approved a $6.4 billion sale to Taiwan. After Washington approved a $1.83 billion package in December 2015, China issued a protest statement to the United States.

FILE - Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, center, along with Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan, right, and Secretary-General of National Security Council Joseph Wu, left, cheer with navy officers during a visit to Zuoying Naval base in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan.
FILE - Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, center, along with Defense Minister Feng Shih-kuan, right, and Secretary-General of National Security Council Joseph Wu, left, cheer with navy officers during a visit to Zuoying Naval base in Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan.

Retaliation

Some Taiwanese worry about tough retaliation from China against their island now given today’s strained relations. But most people want a stronger military in case Beijing gets angrier, Taiwan legislator Lee Chun-yi said.

“It’s for defense, protecting ourselves,” said Chu Chen-tsai, a 57-year-old worker in Taipei, when informed about the proposed sale. “You can’t just do nothing because they oppose it. Whatever should be done, let’s do it.”

China also may retaliate against Taiwan by further restricting its foreign diplomacy, scholars in Taipei have said. More than 170 countries recognize China, and 20 recognize Taiwan.

Public sentiment

Some Taiwanese will feel “ambivalent” about the arms sales, Chiang said, as they want stable relations with China, said Alex Chiang, international relations professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei. China remains Taiwan’s top trading partner, with imports and exports totaling about $118 billion in 2016.

The Chinese president is currently in Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China.

But Taiwan’s defense ministry said in the statement it would talk with U.S. officials “as soon as possible” to work out prices, quantities of weapons and timelines for receiving them. It expects progress within a month.

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