China is not happy that the United States is selling Taiwan a new $1.83 billion arms package including two naval frigates. The Chinese foreign ministry released a blistering statement condemning the sale of military equipment to Taiwan late Wednesday. China also threatened retribution against the defense contractors that made the weapons systems, and required an American diplomat to appear to make an official protest.
Of note, the arms sale to Taiwan is subject to congressional approval, but the leaders of both parties have said they support the weapons sale.
More on China’s reaction to US weapons sales to Taiwan
A statement posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website claimed that Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang berated American diplomat, Kaye A. Lee in a meeting Wednesday night, making sure fully understood that Taiwan was “an inalienable part of China’s territory” and that Beijing was strongly against the provocative arms sale.
“To safeguard our national interests, China has decided to take necessary measures, including imposing sanctions against companies involved in the arms sale,” Zheng also informed Lee at the meeting.
However, China analysts point out that the Middle Kingdom’s reaction to the latest sale of defense materiel fits a familiar pattern.
The most recent U.S. weapons sale to Taiwan was four years ago, and was almost three times bigger than the sale just announced. That sale, however, also led to a diplomat being summoned at night to the Foreign Ministry to receive severe criticism, as China claims that arms sales to Taiwan are an insult to their sovereignty.
On a historical note, Taiwan has been a separate country from mainland China for 65 years following the retreat of the Nationalist forces to the island after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Tse Tung and the Communists.
Evan S. Medeiros, a former official overseeing Asia at the NSC, pointed out that the explicit threat of sanctions against companies was a change from the rhetoric of earlier sales, when the threat was not so up front. Medeiros also commented that earlier Taiwan arms sales resulted in the suspension of meetings between the two militaries, but China did not take that step this time.
Medeiros, the head of the Asia practice for the Eurasia Group, said that the fact the sale was occurring before presidential elections in Taiwan in January helped to minimize the diplomatic brouhaha.
Moreover, Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, has been working to improve ties with mainland China and met last month in Singapore with President Xi Jinping of China. Of interest, this was the first time the leaders of Taiwan and China had ever held an official summit meeting. A complicating factor, however, is that Ma’s Kuomintang party is projected to lose the presidency to the Democratic Progressive Party, which wants to distance itself from the mainland work to assert Taiwan’s identity as an independent country.
“The timing clearly was calibrated to avoid having to do it after the election,” Medeiros highlighted in a phone interview. “That would have been particularly provocative.”
The current $1.83 billion arms sale is much less than the $5.8 billion package the U.S. sold Taiwan in 2011, and will not significantly change the military balance with China. Especially given the large increases in military spending in the Middle Kingdom over the last few years, as the annual Chinese military budget is now more than 13 times as large as Taiwan’s.
Political analysts point out that this weapons package does not include any help to acquire more modern diesel-electric submarines, which is a high priority for Taiwan.
The sale currently under consideration does include two Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates (firs designed in the 1970s), new data link systems, surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, amphibious assault vehicles, and new rapid-fire guns for ships intended to shoot down incoming missiles.
Analysts also emphasize that any sanctions against American/European military contractors would not mean much given U.S. weapons manufacturers have been banned for over 25 years from selling arms to China (following the government killing of students at the Tienanmen Square demonstrations in 1989).
Statement from US State Department
“The Chinese can react to this as they see fit,” noted State Department spokesperson John Kirby at a presser in Washington on Wednesday. “This is nothing new. Again, it’s a cleareyed, sober view of an assessment of Taiwan’s defense needs. And that’s what drove this. There’s no need for it to have any derogatory effect on our relationship with China, just like there was no need in the past for it to ever have that effect on China.”