Thursday, October 8, 2009

Taiwan Cringes at Better U.S.-China Ties

Defense News


Taiwan Cringes at Better U.S.-China Ties

By Wendell Minnick

TAIPEI — Washington’s efforts to shore up ties with Beijing are fueling jitters here that the United States will stop supplying Taiwan with arms, particularly additional F-16 fighter jets, experts and officials said.

At the first United States-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington July 27-28, leaders from the two nations signed agreements on cooperation in climate change, energy, environment, economy and military relations.

On July 28, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Timothy Keating, announced that China and the United States agreed to resume military-to-military relations, labeling the pact a “significant agreement.”

“The restoration of the mil-mil relationship is a key component of the president’s philosophy that no country is more important than China, as he stated in his speech,” said Dennis Wilder, a former senior director for East Asian affairs on the Bush administration’s National Security Council.

For this reason, it appears unlikely that Taiwan will win approval for its request for more F-16 fighters in the near term.

Taiwan’s F-16 request has been on hold since 2006, due to political pressure from China and the change in administrations in Washington.

“I think this will make it very difficult for the administration to move forward any time soon,” Wilder said. “The president is likely to visit Beijing in November, when he visits Asia for the APEC Summit in Singapore. I see little prospect that the administration will want to move on F-16s before that visit, because it is likely to cause a major disruption in U.S.-China ties.”

Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the Washington-based U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, said the Obama administration may use the United Nations’ Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December as another excuse to delay a decision on the F-16 sale.

“If the determination has been made that the Obama administration does not wish to subjugate its China policy — and a drive to get a Chinese commitment on emissions,” a decision on F-16s will remain in limbo, he said.

Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of the Center for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said that including Keating in the recent U.S.-China meeting was good sign, but if Washington agrees to sell F-16s to Taiwan, the military-to-military relationship will once again be suspended.

“It’s really unbelievable,” said Zhuang, that the United States would work so hard to reinstate military relations with China, only to turn around and release F-16s to Taiwan, “despite the fact cross­Strait relations are getting better.”

China cancelled military-to-military relations with the United States after the release last October of a $6.5 billion arms deal to Taiwan that included AH-64D attack helicopters.

However, the F-16 issue would no doubt anger Beijing more and result in again canceling military-to-military relations, with fears that China would refuse to cooperate on North Korea and become more belligerent on the high seas.

Since last October, there have been three incidents involving U.S. Navy vessels and Chinese civilian and naval vessels in the South China Sea.

To complicate the issue further, China and Taiwan have moved closer economically and politically over the past year. However, China has not reduced the ballistic missiles it has aimed at Taiwan, and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has made this a prerequisite to improving ties.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Obama administration will consider the potential negative impact of arms sales on U.S.-China relations, but the fact that China has not reduced its military threat to Taiwan is a “very important factor.”

“Enhancing U.S.-China mil-mil relations does not necessary mean arms sales to Taiwan will be compromised,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, here. The United States has repeatedly emphasized that arms sales are tied to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), and the U.S. government is obliged to abide by the TRA, he said.

“The U.S. Congress will not allow the Obama government to go around the law of the land and compromise U.S. interests in the region,” Yang said.

That’s why Yang and others maintain Washington will ultimately sell more F-16s to Taiwan.