US arms sales to Taiwan
As expected, the United States rejected Taiwan’s request for sophisticated F-16C/D fighter jets so as not to incense China, but instead agreed to upgrade the island’s existing fleet of older F-16A/B fighters for $5.3 billion.
Also as expected, China denounced the U.S., calling on it to “immediately revoke” this “wrong decision.”
It was theater, with both sides reading from a script. But each side must realize that its words are being heard by multiple audiences and may as a result have unintended effects.
Thus, while each side is well aware of the other’s predicament ― the Obama administration faces a pro-Taiwan Congress while China’s government faces a nationalistic population ― each party’s presentation of its position may trigger reactions that will make the overall relationship more difficult to manage.
For example, responding to congressional taunts that not enough was being done for Taiwan, a senior official asserted that the Obama administration has “provided twice the amount in half the time” in weaponry to Taiwan compared to the Bush administration.
Of course, such remarks are also heard in Beijing and may well increase pressure within China for a harsher response to Washington.
After all, Chinese officials don’t want to appear weak vis-a-vis the United States. Similarly, there is a real danger that the rhetoric employed by Chinese officials to condemn America may fan the flames of nationalism in the country and make it even harder for the government to adopt pragmatic stances.
As it is, the official Chinese newspaper People’s Daily has warned that Beijing may not cooperate with Washington on global issues.
"American politicians are totally mistaken if they believe they can, on the one hand, demand that China behave as a responsible great power and cooperate with the United States on this and that issue, while on the other hand irresponsibly and wantonly harm China's core interests," it said.
While China is telling the United States it should not harm Chinese interests if it wants Beijing’s cooperation, those same words may suggest to third countries that China is prepared to behave irresponsibly, regardless of the consequences to the rest of the world.
Just why does the Chinese government oppose these arms sales? First, there is a question of principle: From its standpoint, any arms sale to Taiwan constitutes interference in internal Chinese affairs, since Taiwan is part of China.
However, another reason, given by Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun when he made his protest to American Ambassador Gary Locke was that the arms sale “sends a gravely mistaken signal to pro-Taiwan independence separatist forces.”
But then, the arms request was not made by the pro-independence opposition party but by President Ma Ying-jeou, the Taiwan leader most friendly to the mainland in over six decades.
In fact, Beijing certainly hopes he will be re-elected in January rather than lose to opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen.
And it must understand that Washington’s announcement of the arms sale will bolster the incumbent’s position since Ma is often depicted by the opposition as not sufficiently standing up to China.
So the Chinese know that the American move is in a way very much in their own interests, and yet they rant and rave, denouncing the United States.
Ironically, the Global Times, often described as a nationalistic tabloid, actually took a rather sensible position.
“China’s verbal protests are generally much stronger than its actual retaliation,” it said, adding that this harms China’s political credibility and makes it look weak in the eyes of the public.
It said: “If the government thinks the scale of an arms package could be tolerated, it should also let the public know. The authorities should give clear responses to public opinion, rather than make people guess at its actual stance.”
This is good advice. Deng Xiaoping agreed to normalize diplomatic relations with the United States in 1979 knowing that arms sales to Taiwan would continue, if kept within certain bounds.
Beijing’s leaders should know that since China is now a global power, its responsibilities are greater than ever; refusing to cooperate on global issues is not in China’s interests and not worthy of a great power.
Besides, while official Chinese rhetoric may be meant for the ears of Washington and of mainlanders, public opinion in Taiwan is inevitably affected. Indeed, in the end, if Beijing wants peaceful reunification, the people of Taiwan are its most important audience. Will they decide that they want to be part of a country that threatens to rain missiles on them while trying to strip them of their defenses?
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.