Thursday, February 4, 2010

Arms sales adds complexity to the U.S.-China-Taiwan Triangle

President Obama’s announcement to sell $6.4 billion of arms to Taiwan seems to have caught China by surprise. Some in Washington see Beijing’s reaction as a normal response when the U.S. raises the tension in the U.S.-China-Taiwan triangle while others are not so sure.

One thing is clear, however. Obama does not have the luxury of starting a confrontation with China. Many argued that coming into office facing the tsunami of a financial crisis, Obama needed China’s support of the dollar by continuing to buy and holding on to treasury notes. A soft, non-confrontational approach was the only way.

Thus Obama’s decision to sell arms to Taiwan can be read in at least two different ways. One is that Obama has established great rapport with the leaders of Beijing as a result of his November trip to China and arms sales was among the many subjects discussed, and that Obama’s announcement and Beijing’s response are orchestrated. In fact, some academicians inside China have been quoted as saying that Beijing’s official protest is for domestic consumption.

The other interpretation is that Obama’s trip to China was a failure as he did not come back with specific agreements that could be counted as wins. Obama, therefore, has decided to send the message that he, too, can play hardball. By offering only Black Hawk helicopters and Patriot missiles, but withholding advanced fighters and submarines, he is seen as saving a heavier punch for the future, in case he needs to ratchet up the tension by another notch.

This view, while fitting with the inclination of more hawkish analysts in Washington, seems to fly in face of what Obama has demonstrated from the oval office, namely, an intelligent leader who makes thoughtful and rational decisions. Furthermore, he continues to need China’s cooperation not only in the international arena such as Iran and North Korea but also to keep holding onto to the dollar. A confrontation with China does not seem to be in our national interest.

Official spokespersons from Washington justify the arms sales as a U.S. obligation “to ensure Taiwan’s self-defense capability.” This claim is a bit of an exaggeration. Compared to Taiwan, China has more than eight times the military personnel, five times more fighter aircrafts and 15 times more submarines, not to mention the thousands of missiles pointing at Taiwan. A few squadrons of helicopters are not going to tip the scale. (See a PLA analyst commenting on Taiwan's military.)

Obama’s announcement, coming on the heels of Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou’s highly publicized diplomatic swing through Central America, including two transit stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles -- a privilege never accorded his predecessor -- is a win for Ma and probably intended for Taiwan’s internal consumption.

So the third interpretation of the arms sales and the following brouhaha can be read as staged for the benefit of the domestic audiences of all three countries in the trilateral relations. Ma’s political opposition has been attacking him for being soft on the mainland and leaving Taiwan defenseless. He can now claim to hold a stronger hand while he continues to engage Beijing on economic cooperation. Of course, Taiwan politics being what it is, the opposition is now complaining that the United State’s offer sets the price for the arms as much as 40% above market value.

Both Obama and Ma (in China they are referred to as two horses, “ma” being the word for horse) are hurting in their home approval ratings. While China’s President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are not subject to popularity polls, strong approval at home is important to their ability to govern as well. Beijing’s pledged to retaliate against companies involved in the arms sale, no doubt, will make them popular at the home front.

It was only one administration ago that the White House spoke of containment of China. A significant part of the Washington establishment continues to regard China as an adversary. Selling arms to Taiwan may be politically necessary in response to domestic pressures, but such an announcement and possible future meetings with the Dalai Lama are not going to win China over as a partner in solving international crises.

Eventually, Obama will have to make up his mind whether to treat China as a friend or as a non-aligned third party, if not an outright adversary. A positive trip to China followed by offsetting moves on controversial issues such as arms sales to Taiwan will not accomplish the goal of gaining China as a valuable ally. And given the arrays of problems he is facing, Obama needs all the help he can get.

The above published by New America Media.

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