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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
China Opposes Prospective U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan

Wade Boese

Repeating what has become an annual exercise, senior Chinese government officials stepped up their public opposition in March to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. The United States, which decides every April what weapons it will sell to Taiwan, has, as always, remained silent about its prospective sales but has stressed its commitment to help provide for Taiwan's defense.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan to be a renegade province and seeks the island's reunification with the mainland, views all arms sales by foreign countries to Taipei as a violation of Chinese sovereignty. Washington justifies its Taiwan arms sales as an obligation arising from the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which calls on the United States to make available arms "necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability." The United States adopted the act after switching diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China.

This year, Taiwan is reportedly seeking, among other arms, to buy P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft, advanced anti-radar missiles, and four U.S. Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers equipped with the Aegis combat system. The Clinton administration declined to sell these weapons last year but did approve for the first time the sale of an advanced air-to-air missile.

China is most upset by the possible destroyer sale because of the ship's advanced radar, communications, and battle management capabilities, as well as the fact that the United States is planning to use these ships as the platform for its own naval theater missile defense systems. Speaking to reporters in Beijing March 14, Sha Zukang, who heads the Chinese Foreign Ministry's arms control and disarmament department, expressed "hate" for all U.S. arms sales to Taiwan but said that the "Aegis is the worst." Sha worried that the destroyer's advanced technology would permit it to be "linked" to the U.S. military, which he stated would be "tantamount to [a] de facto military alliance" between Taipei and Washington.

Earlier in the month, on March 6, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan warned the sale of advanced weaponry like the destroyers would "endanger China-U.S. relations" and counseled the United States to "rein in its wild horse right on the side of the precipice." Chinese officials describe Taiwan as the most important and sensitive issue in U.S.-China relations.

Since the Bush administration assumed office in January, China has sent three delegations to the United States to lobby against U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the most recent being the trip made by Vice Premier Qian Qichen in mid-March. Qian told reporters March 20 that the sale of the Aegis-equipped ships could change China's approach to reunification with Taiwan from peaceful to "military." Chinese policy, as outlined in February 2000, is that Beijing will only resort to force against Taiwan if the island declares independence, is occupied by a foreign country, or indefinitely refuses to negotiate on reunification.

Meeting with top U.S. officials later in the week, Qian did not repeat the same statement. Instead, according to a senior State Department official, on March 21 Qian issued the standard Chinese complaint to Secretary of State Colin Powell, saying that China considers U.S. arms sales to Taiwan a violation of the 1982 Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué, which stated that the United States would not "carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan" and that U.S. arms sales would "not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years." Powell disagreed, the official said, and defended U.S. arms sales as helping stability in the region.

Qian did not raise the issue of arms sales with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld the next morning, but he broached it with President George W. Bush that night without mentioning specific weapons systems. A senior administration official said the president reaffirmed to Qian the U.S. commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act. Bush, according to the official, also told Qian in a general discussion on regional security that "nothing we do is a threat to you, and I want you to tell that to your leadership."

In an exclusive interview with The Washington Post the following day in Beijing, Chinese President Jiang Zemin declared, "We absolutely oppose the sale of advanced weapons by the United States to Taiwan." He further warned, "The more weapons you sell, the more we will prepare ourselves in terms of our national defense." The sale of Aegis-equipped destroyers would be "very detrimental to China-U.S. relations," Jiang concluded.

For their part, Bush administration officials contend they have yet to decide on any specific weapons package, saying the decision will be made in April. Some Taiwan papers, however, report that Washington has already decided not to supply the advanced destroyers. An alternative could be the sale of four decommissioned Kidd-class guided-missile destroyers, which are not equipped with the Aegis system. Such a sale would be less provocative to China and could likely be completed sooner.

According to Litton Ingalls, one of the two U.S. companies that build the Arleigh Burke destroyers, it takes three years to build an Arleigh Burke-class ship to established U.S. specifications; Taiwan's requirements would likely be different. In addition, the two companies are currently building additional destroyers for the U.S. Navy, and it is uncertain how Taiwan ships would fit into the schedule.

During a mid-March visit to China, Admiral Dennis Blair, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, cautioned that U.S. decisions on what arms to sell Taiwan "depend in large measure" on what China does with its missiles that threaten the island. Blair noted that China has approximately 300 missiles deployed across from Taiwan and is adding about 50 a year.

Senior Republicans in Congress, led by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), have advocated the sale of advanced weaponry to Taiwan. On March 8, a professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is chaired by Helms, released a report arguing that "Taiwan does need new platforms, particularly submarines and advanced destroyers." The report charged that the United States has not only been "rejecting and slowing down arms sales to Taiwan," but "dumbing down" weapons approved for Taiwan. Taiwan's military is also "increasingly worried" about Chinese military activities and weapons buys from Russia, the report noted. (Two days before the report's release, China announced a 17.7 percent increase in its defense spending.)

According to the Pentagon, it delivered more than $15.3 billion in weaponry to Taiwan between fiscal years 1990 and 1999, as compared with only $4.4 billion in all prior years back to 1950. A Congressional Research Service report last August noted that, over an eight-year period beginning in 1992, Taiwan received some $20.6 billion in arms, while China imported roughly $5.9 billion in weapons. China primarily buys Russian weaponry, which are cheaper than U.S. arms.