The current arms sales include Patriot 3 missile defence systems, a sensitive form of technology. These are a defensive system, but even the implication has been enough to annoy Beijing. Under the One China doctrine adopted by the UN, Taiwan is an estranged province. The comparative analogy would be China supplying arms to a secessionist Hawaii.
China formally occupied Taiwan during the Ming Dynasty, when the island was a pirate haven responsible for endless attacks on the Chinese mainland. It was later taken over by the Japanese during the 20th century, and was the place of refuge for the Kuomintang after their defeat in 1949.
Despite the appalling record of the Kuomintang in China, and their subsequent equally vicious and criminal abuse of the local Taiwanese, the US decided to create its equivalent of Cuba off the Chinese mainland, complete with US forces, which weren’t withdrawn until 1979 under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which redefined the situation in concert with China. This was a “democracy” in name only, more a fascist dictatorship on a par with Nazi Germany, but during the Cold War being anti communist was a guarantee of handouts from American governments of all persuasions.
(With one notable exception: Truman was so sick of Chiang’s endless abuses of the relationship and many military contracts during and after the war that he refused to supply the Nationalists during the Civil War, resulting in the almost instant collapse of the Kuomintang on the mainland.)
Taiwan also had potential US support from the regional bases of Guam, Okinawa, Japan, and the Sixth Fleet. At the time it was a credible threat to Mao’s China. The strategy was containment, with an obvious platform off China.
That was 60 years ago. Current arms sales are based on a rather different premise. This is more like an antiques sales fair than a trade deal. It's a financial exercise, not a military move. A few Patriot missiles don’t constitute a threat to China, more a limited capacity nuisance. The F16s and their Taiwanese relatives, the Chingkuo fighters aren’t a threat, either. They barely qualify as a strategic issue. Militarily, Taiwan couldn’t stop an all out Chinese invasion. The real military risk would be an escalation involving the US Navy in a confrontation with China, which could get messy.
The net effect constitutes an insult. The Chinese are infuriated at what they see as a flat footed diplomatic move, as well as a bolstering of perceptions of Taiwan’s credibility as an independent state. China’s position on Taiwan hasn’t budged in those 60 years, and that’s the high end of the unacceptability scale.
American and Chinese perceptions are fundamentally different. The Wall Street Journal refers to a scenario in which Chinese action against Taiwan would put China in the role of totalitarian aggressor, and the hundreds of missiles in the Chinese arsenal which might be used against this “free” island.
The theory in this WSJ article
is that “Chinese will never kill Chinese,” therefore American arms sales are largely symbolic. That doesn’t quite fit the historic facts of massive bloodbaths since the First Emperor, the Kuomintang’s massacres of Chinese and Taiwanese, or any other known historical fact about China, but what the hell, it’s the WSJ.
(The WSJ also advocates sales of F22 Raptors and AEGIS cruisers to Taiwan, an interestingly provocative concept. As a way of starting a confrontation, that would definitely do it. The Chinese would not tolerate sales of these systems to Taiwan under any circumstances.)
Even Taiwanese news is being careful about how they express the situation. The China Post
has some reservations about the whole issue, and if generally taking the line that China is overreacting to a degree, it’s a balanced response, mapping out the issues.
has a long stream of articles expressing the Chinese official position, including a current Foreign Ministry statement which confirms sanctions will be applied to companies supplying Taiwan.
The net content is that this really will hurt China and US trade. China is also accusing the US of protectionism
, following anti dumping tariff increases.
The possibilities for escalation are almost endless. Washington may have its reasons for supporting a conceptual dinosaur, but the theory that China can’t or won’t back up its position is dangerously simplistic. This is a prestige issue, not a mere squabble over details. China is looking to become a world leader, and it’s also highly conscious of its economic clout, which Copenhagen proved to be very pervasive. They don’t want to look like they’re backing down.
The overall appearance of this situation is that China thinks it can win a fight on this issue. Unlike previous squalls, this has the potential to build up into a major hurricane.
1. The world has a lot of money tied up in Chinese trade.
2. So does the US.
3. During the worst recession since the Great Depression may not be the opportune time to create further problems for world trade.
4. Currency issues and sudden moves could negatively affect both countries, and neither of them would be able to control the market responses.
5. Taking sides in this debate isn’t going to appeal to anyone doing business with China or the US.
Some sanity would be nice. Taiwan and the Koreas are the last remnants of the Cold War. It’s about time history moved on. This could be a very expensive foray into an area where nobody ever wins.