The Cable

Is the Obama administration prepping another arms sale to Taiwan?

The U.S. policy of supporting Taiwan through sales of U.S. weapons is the biggest irritant in the increasingly complicated U.S.-China relationship. This week, just before Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington, a potential new round of arms sales to Taiwan threatens to overshadow the Obama-Hu summit. Following the January 2010 sale of $6.4 billion ...

The U.S. policy of supporting Taiwan through sales of U.S. weapons is the biggest irritant in the increasingly complicated U.S.-China relationship. This week, just before Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington, a potential new round of arms sales to Taiwan threatens to overshadow the Obama-Hu summit.

Following the January 2010 sale of $6.4 billion of weapons to Taiwan, the Chinese cut off military-to-military relations with Washington. These relations were only restored this week during Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘ trip to Beijing, which was somewhat overshadowed by the first flight test of the People Liberation Army’s new J-20 stealth fighter. The White House put off the last round of sales until after Obama’s November 2009 trip to China. However, it only succeeded in delaying the inevitable Chinese outrage and now the Chinese are saying that no more sales will be tolerated.

"United States arms sales to Taiwan seriously damaged China’s core interests and we do not want to see that happen again, neither do we hope that the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan will again and further disrupt our bilateral and military-to-military relationship," Chinese Minister for National Defense Gen. Liang Guanglie said during a joint press conference with Gates Jan. 10.

Gates told the Chinese that the arms sales would continue, as they have for decades, under the Taiwan Relations Act, a U.S. law that mandates that the United States will support Taiwan’s self-defense.

"[I]f the relationship between China and Taiwan continued to improve and the security environment for Taiwan changed, then perhaps that would create the conditions for reexamining all of this," Gates said at a roundtable after the meeting. "But that would be an evolutionary and a long-term process, it seems to me.  I don’t think that’s anything that’s going to happen anytime soon."

Meanwhile, a new package of arms sales is in the works. The next package is made up of upgrades and add-ons for Taiwan’s fleet of 146 F-16 A and B type fighters. Defense News reported Jan. 10 that the Pentagon is planning in the next few weeks to release price and availability data for the materials, which will include advanced avionics and engines.

And today, the Washington Times’ Bill Gertz reported that the Obama administration has reached a decision to extend a news arms package to Taiwan, "but is keeping details secret until after next week’s visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao." Gertz wrote that the State Department was holding up the sale and that it could total as much as $4 billion.

A State Department official threw a bucket of cold water on the Gertz report, saying that there’s no "pending" decision on arms sales to Taiwan and there was no effort to delay arms sales due to the Hu Jintao visit.

"We review Taiwan’s defensive capabilities on an ongoing basis. Taiwan frequently tells us what they’d like to have and then we work with Taiwan on equipment that meets their needs," the official said.

Referring directly to Gertz, a reporter whose conservatives views have irritated the State Department on matters ranging from missile defense to Russia to China, the State Department official said, "This particular reporter, as you know, has his own foreign policy."

A Taiwanese government source told The Cable that yes, there was a desire to buy F-16 A/B upgrades from the U.S. but they have no idea about the timing of such a deal, and that it had never been finalized or considered imminent. The source went on to emphasize that Taiwan is still pressing a 2006 request for more advanced F-16 C and D type fighters and is interested in purchasing the fifth generation F-35 fighter as well.

Douglas Paal, who as director of the American Institute in Taiwan was the de facto U.S. ambassador there from 2002 to 2006, said that upgrading Taiwan’s F-16s was an ongoing process dating back to 1993 and would continue whether Beijing liked it or not. He also remarked that the Obama administration is smart enough not to act on the sale on the eve of the Hu visit, and doubted that it was ever planning to do so.

"The upgrades will go forward at the appropriate time. I don’t think this will be viewed (inside the administration) as the appropriate time," said Paal.

China-Taiwan ties have been warming for years, but haven’t yet lessened Taiwanese security concerns or U.S. officials’ determination to continue arm sales to the island. Beijing has hundreds of missiles pointed at Taiwan, and continues to shift the balance of power across the strait in its own favor.

"This goes to the heart of the gap in perception on both sides (of the U.S.-China relationship)," said Michael Swaine, a China military expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Even though you have improvement in cross-strait relations, you have a continued build up of capabilities opposite to Taiwan that are only relevant to Taiwan."

Regardless, a new round of sales still risks upending the U.S.-China relationship, said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for International Studies. "If we do go ahead with a major arms sale to Taiwan then probably all bets are off."

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