China's knee-jerk reaction to a small US-Taiwan arms deal

December 22, 2015 09:26
An army AH-1W helicopter launches rockets targeting a mock enemy during an anti-landing exercise in Taiwan in this file photo. Taipei has secured another arms deal, albeit small, from Washington. Photo: Bloomberg

China responded with a knee-jerk reaction to the Obama Administration's announcement of a US$1.83 billion arms sales package for Taiwan, summoning the charge d’affaires at the American embassy for a dressing down and calling the arms sale a "severe violation of international law" that "severely damages China’s sovereignty and security interests".

The Chinese denunciation came despite the fact the latest US deal was the smallest arms sale package for Taiwan in many years and, in fact, the first one in more than four years. The package does not include the updated version of the F-16, which Taiwan has long requested, but includes Perry-class frigates retired from the US navy.

The Chinese foreign ministry's reaction was comparable to that four years ago, when the US sold US$5.9 billion in weapons to Taiwan. Earlier this year, China said it was imposing sanctions on Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, two leading defense contractors, and that "the Chinese government and enterprises will not conduct cooperation or business with such enterprises".

The US disclosure did not come as a surprise to China. In fact, it had been known for some time that the announcement was going to be made.

Interestingly, on Dec. 16, before the US made its formal announcement, the Global Times, an often nationalistic state-owned newspaper, published a report with the headline: "US arms sale to Taiwan seen as symbolic". It carried a subhead, which explained that such a transaction would "save next US President future troubles in ties with China".

Thus, the Global Times analysis was that the Obama administration's decision was intended to smooth relations between the US and China after the inauguration of a new president.

However, once the Chinese government had denounced the American action, state media organs have to toe the line. Thus, Global Times on Dec. 18 ran an editorial that said that "although the scale of this deal is smaller than previous ones, its nature is as evil as ever".

But then, it went on to assert, quite accurately, that "the Chinese mainland’s military power has long since gained overwhelming advantage against Taiwan. No matter how many weapons the US sells to it, the mismatched power structure across the Taiwan Straits won’t be changed." That is to say, the sale is militarily irrelevant. Its ramifications are only political.

“Perry-class frigates have already been retired from the US Navy,” the editorial pointed out. Taiwan, it suggested, was "paying tribute to the US" and "begging for a protection commitment from Washington".

That is precisely the situation. Taiwan knows that it cannot possibly withstand an attack by the mainland without American help. The arms that it acquires are merely an indication to the US that it is doing its part to defend itself. Ultimately, Taiwan has to pray for the US Navy to come to its assistance. In a way, for Taiwan, buying weapons is paying protection money.

Beijing certainly knows all this. Yet, it never criticizes Taiwan for asking for and paying for American weapons. It prefers to denounce the seller, not the buyer.

What Beijing is opposing is what it considers to be the violation of its sovereignty. While this particular arms sales package will make little if any difference to the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait, China is in principle opposed to any military sale to Taiwan, even if it is a single rifle.

In the meantime, the Chinese mainland continues to do what it can to isolate Taiwan internationally. Earlier this month, for instance, Chinese officials met representatives of 50 African countries but, insisting on a "one China" principle, excluded three countries that still maintain relations with Taiwan.

During the eight years since Ma Ying-jeou became president of Taiwan, China has allowed Taiwan a tiny bit of breathing space internationally by allowing it to be invited annually to the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva and, more recently, to attend the International Civil Aviation Organization assembly as a guest.

But such invitations are offered year by year and can stop at any time if China should want to punish Taiwan.

The mainland has an array of tools at its disposal that could be wielded after the inauguration of a new government in Taiwan next year -- if, as expected, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party gains control of the Legislative Yuan and Tsai Ing-wen is sworn in as the new president.

In those circumstances, Beijing would prefer Taiwan to be isolated internationally and certainly not be the recipient of arms sales packages from Washington to strengthen the island's defenses and to provide solace to a pro-independence government in Taipei.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.