WASHINGTON/BEIJING -- Even as it keeps China in check by supplying ships and other military hardware to Taiwan, the U.S. is taking care not to ruffle Chinese feathers too much as it excludes cutting-edge offerings.
Under a deal announced Wednesday, the U.S. will sell Taiwan two missile frigates, anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles, amphibious vehicles and other technology. The Obama administration looks to avoid appearing soft on mainland China, as sentiment is building against the country ahead of the November 2016 U.S. presidential election and amid Beijing's buildup in the South China Sea. But none of the weapons pose any real military threat to the mainland.
Beijing in mind
The deal is consistent with "U.S. support for Taiwan's ability to maintain sufficient self-defense capability," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday. Yet the arms package does not include F-16 fighters or other advanced weaponry requested by Taipei, and it totals only $1.83 billion, or around one-third the value of similar transactions made in 2010 and 2011.
"I would hasten to add that there has been no change to our longstanding 'one China' policy," Earnest said, referring to America's acknowledgement of the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is part of China. The sale looks designed to fulfill Washington's obligations to Taipei while riling Beijing as little as possible.
The sale's announcement also seems timed with the mainland in mind. Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, currently in the opposition, looks to triumph in presidential and parliamentary elections in January. Had the arms deal been announced after the changeover, Beijing's objections would have been far stronger. Making the deal public earlier, meanwhile, could have scuttled cooperation between Washington and Beijing on the new framework agreement to fight climate change adopted in Paris on Saturday.
The mainland Chinese government officially regards Taiwan as an indivisible part of its territory as well as a core economic asset, leaving little room for compromise on the arms deal and other such topics. Both the military and much of the public are wedded to the hard-line position. President Xi Jinping thus cannot afford to be seen as yielding on cross-strait issues.
Assistant Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang on Wednesday reportedly summoned U.S. Charge d'Affaires Kaye Lee from the American Embassy in Beijing, demanding the arms deal be revoked. The government will "take necessary measures, including the imposition of sanctions against companies participating in the arms sale to Taiwan," the official reportedly said. But Beijing will not cut off military ties with Washington as it did in response to the 2010 sale, keeping dialogue open for the purpose of crisis management.
Even the sanctions are less threatening than they appear. The weapons being sold to Taiwan are produced by leading defense contractors including Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. But the U.S. already bans arms exports to China, meaning that sanctions only against companies participating in the sale will have no practical effect. The two titans seem to have come to their own form of understanding.