WASHINGTON — Growing tensions over Taiwan pose the most serious dilemma in Sino-American relations since the United States recognized the People's Republic of China seven years ago.
Communist Party Secretary Hu Yaobang, flanked by Vice Foreign Minister Zhu Qizhen, made an unprecedented attack on American policies concerning Taiwan in a recent meeting with me in Peking. Zhu's Washington visit last week marked the start of a determined Chinese attempt to compel reduced American military support for Taipei as part of a broader shift in U.S. policy.
Sharply questioning U.S. good faith in honoring a major agreement with China limiting U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Hu warned that the United States is "not friendly to China regarding Taiwan, and if you remain unfriendly over a long period of time, we would not tolerate that." Hu charged that "some people" in the Reagan Administration "want to use Taiwan as a pawn so that we will become a faithful ally of the United States. But we have stated repeatedly that China will not become an ally. We want to be friendly, but not an ally."
The Reagan Administration is trapped between two conflicting commitments: one to the U.S. Congress and another to China. The United States insisted on retaining the right to sell arms to Taiwan when it opened relations with the People's Republic. But Congress went a step further, enacting the Taiwan Relations Act, which requires U.S. sales of weaponry to Taiwan "sufficient" for its defense. This has provoked continuing tensions with Peking that were temporarily papered over when U.S. and Chinese leaders signed the Second Shanghai Communique on Aug. 17, 1982, in which the United States pledged that arms sales to Taiwan "will not exceed, either in qualitative or quantitative terms," the level supplied since 1979. In deliberately ambiguous language, the communique said that the United States "intends gradually to reduce its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution."
The United States has reduced its arms sales by $20 million per year since the 1982 communique. But Sino-American tensions over Taiwan were rekindled last year when Peking learned that the United States had begun to license exports of sophisticated technology to Taiwan for the manufacture of weaponry more advanced than its existing military hardware. China views the new U.S. licensing policy as a clear violation of the communique. The United States responds that the 1982 accord does not cover transfers of technology.
Chinese anger has mounted in recent months as U.S. defense publications have reported hush-hush details of Taiwan's $1-billion program to make an "Indigenous Defensive Fighter Aircraft" that will contain late-model U.S. engine and avionics technology. About 35 U.S. companies, orchestrated by General Dynamics, are providing designs, know-how and components and are training technicians from Taiwan in the United States.
Washington has refused to sell Taipei the F-20 or the F-16, since these would clearly represent an overt qualitative increase over the F-5E, currently the most advanced plane in Taiwan's air force. But informed sources in Taipei, Washington and participating companies say that the projected plane will "approach" the F-20 in some of its key technology and will look like a "small version of the F-16." Comparing it with the F-5E, Defense Minister Soong Chang-chih told me in Taipei last month that the new plane will "of course represent a qualitative improvement over the F-5E or we wouldn't be spending a billion dollars on it."
Even though they are "not mentioned directly," Hu said, "technology transfers are clearly covered. What is the difference between arms sales and the transfer of technology for the manufacture of armaments? 'Transfer of technology' sounds better, but it is the same thing as arms sales. We are not clear about the exact level of technology being licensed by the United States for the airplane. But if it is a fact that the U.S. is using technology transfers to circumvent the limits on quantitative and qualitative increases, it would constitute bad faith. China would take a stern position and would give serious consideration to the proper measures of response."
Since China is also getting military help for its air force from the United States and says that it wants to reunite China peacefully, why does Peking object so strongly to U.S. arms sales to Taipei?