Pentagon fears arms sale to Taiwan may fray China ties
The Pentagon is bracing for some cutbacks in military and other cooperation efforts with China as a result of a new arms package for Taiwan.
China likely will cut off several military exchanges with the U.S. Pacific Command, cancel some high-level visits and end limited cooperation with Washington on arms proliferation, said U.S. officials familiar with internal assessments of the arms sale.
However, the officials said they do not expect a complete break in military ties with Beijing, as occurred temporarily in 2008 and last year after deals were announced.
“China does not want a major disruption in relations,” said one official, who noted that Beijing’s key priority is avoiding a spat with the United States as communist leaders prepare for the transition from President Hu Jintao to Vice President Xi Jinping, set for the fall of 2012.
The Chinese military on its own, however, could undertake some reprisals, as it did in 2007 by blocking the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk from making a scheduled Thanksgiving Day port call to Hong Kong.
A Chinese general last year urged China to punish the United States by calling in some of China’s U.S. Treasury debt holdings, currently estimated at $1.1 trillion.
The Obama administration announced last week the sale of a package of equipment and weapons worth $5.8 billion to upgrade Taiwan’s fleet of 145 F16 jets.
In agreeing to the upgrades, President Obama and White House officials rejected a proposal sought by some in the administration to offer Taiwan 66 new and more advanced F-16 C/D jets.
Administration officials briefed Congress on the deal Sept. 16 and are defending the decision not to sell new jets by asserting that the upgrades will give modernized Taiwanese F16s a “near-C/D” capability.
A congressional military specialist, however, said the expected arms package will be insufficient in bolstering Taiwan’s air power.
The White House turned down the sale of C/D jets because of concerns that the sale would upset relations with China more than a sale to upgrade older jets, the officials said.
In addition to announcing the Taiwanese military upgrade, the Pentagon released a congressionally mandated study on Taiwan’s air power.
The study concludes that Tai- wan’s military should buy shorttakeoff and vertical-landing jets such as the British-design AV-8B Harrier jump jet or the new F35B vertical-takeoff version, according to the officials familiar with the aircraft.
That conclusion was based on anticipated Chinese missile strikes against Taiwanese airfields with cratering munitions that would thwart takeoffs by F16s and other jets.
A defense official said that conclusion appears skewed to support the administration’s decision not to sell new F-16s by highlighting airstrip vulnerability.
According to the officials, China’s government also lobbied senior U.S. officials, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden during his recent trip to Beijing, against selling new jets.
In Beijing, a government spokesman criticized plans for the upgrade after reports, first disclosed by The Washington Times, that Mr. Obama had approved the arms package for the island, which Beijing views as a breakaway province.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters Sept. 16 that “China firmly opposes U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.” She called on the Obama administration to abide by a 1982 joint U.S.-China communique and “stop selling arms to Taiwan.”
According to China’s Caixun financial news outlet, the People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party newspaper, stated recently in an editorial that China should use “financial weapons” against the United States if it sells new F-16s to Taiwan, even if doing so would isolate China.
The decision not to sell new F16s prompted harsh reaction from Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who had been pushing for new jets for Taiwan as a way to bolster the island’s security and create jobs.
The F-16 is made by Lockheed Martin, which has an aircraft production factor y in Texas.
Mr. Cornyn called reports that the F-16 C/Ds were rejected “capitulation to communist China by the Obama administration” and said the decision “marks a sad day in American foreign policy, and it represents a slap in the face to a strong ally and longtime friend.”
“This sale would have been a win-win, bolstering the national security of two democratic nations and supporting jobs for an American workforce that desperately needs them,” Mr. Cornyn said.
Mr. Cornyn, with Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, recently introduced legislation that would require the ad- ministration to sell the new C/D jets. It contains a provision that states that the United States “must provide” Taiwan with new fighter aircraft under the terms of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
A Sept. 19 report in the Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times stated that, despite its opposition to the F-16 upgrade, China is not expected to halt all military exchanges.
The newspaper quoted a Chinese editor as saying a cutoff of all military ties would heighten concerns about China’s expanding military power.
The Obama administration has been seeking closer military ties to China. In January, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates proposed holding talks on nuclear weapons, missile defenses, cyberwarfare and space. A Chinese general promised to study the proposal.
Pentagon spokesman George Little declined to comment on the pending arms sale. He said U.S. arms-sale policy is based on the three joint communiques with China and the Taiwan Relations Act.
On military ties, Mr. Little said: “From our perspective, we have made progress in our dialogue as we work toward a healthy, stable and reliable and continuous military-to-military relationship.”