GUANGZHOU, CHINA — Washington will sell $90 million worth of anti-ship missiles to Taiwan, ending what some analysts said has been a U.S. freeze on arms sales that was designed to ease cross-strait tension between China and Taiwan.
The Department of Defense has given the go-ahead for the purchase of 60 Harpoon Air Launch missiles made by McDonnell Douglas Corp. for delivery in 2009, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported Wednesday.
The announcement comes at a time of improved relations between China and Taiwan. Since taking office in May, Taiwanese President Ma Ying- jeou has pledged to improve economic and political relations with China even as he has promised to maintain the island's defense capabilities.
The Harpoon missile deal is in addition to a $12-billion arms package sought for Taiwan that has been stalled for years.
"This sends a message that Washington is committed to Taiwan's defense," said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a think tank in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital. "And with some sort of framework for improved cross-strait relations under consideration, Taiwan needs to bargain from a position of strength."
Taiwan and China split in 1949 after a civil war. Beijing considers the island part of its territory and has threatened to use force if necessary to prevent the Taipei government from declaring independence.
Analysts said China's military, the People's Liberation Army, is spending aggressively to modernize, putting pressure on Taiwan to maintain a credible deterrent. Ma also wants to send a signal to Taiwanese voters that he is paying attention to the island's safety and well-being amid concern that he might become too cozy with Beijing.
The Harpoons are designed to raise the potential cost of a Chinese amphibious attack and deter a maritime blockade.
"But the fact is, unless these Harpoons have some sort of magical power, anything that costs $90 million isn't going to dramatically tip the balance one way or the other," said Justin Logan, an analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington.
Taiwan has successfully launched Harpoon missiles from F-16 aircraft, but the weapons are ideally suited for P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, designed to skim the surface before sinking ocean-going warships.
This suggests that the U.S. will go ahead and deliver 12 P3-C aircraft tentatively approved in 2007. These are used in anti-submarine warfare, a perceived weakness in Taiwan's defensive posture, as well as in anti-surface warfare, maritime surveillance, naval fleet support and search-and-rescue work.
Analysts said the timing of the Harpoon announcement appeared aimed at lessening the blow in Beijing. Some added that there has been no outright freeze on arms sales to Taiwan.
"My guess is that the administration was waiting until the Olympics were over so as not to embarrass President Hu Jintao and the Chinese leadership," said Richard Bush, a Brookings Institution analyst and former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, the United States' de facto embassy.
President Bush presumably used his trip to the Olympics this month to warn the Chinese that this was coming, analysts added.
"Now that Bush has returned, my expectation is that we will see a number of sales move ahead to Congress for review in the weeks ahead," said Alan Romberg, a senior associate at Washington's Henry L. Stimson Center.
The U.S. is committed by law to defending Taiwan, although exactly what that means and how much responsibility the island bears is subject to interpretation.
One weapon system the U.S. will probably think twice about is the F-16 C/D fighter aircraft, 66 of which were requested by Ma to replace aging F-5s. Their sophistication probably would elicit protests from Beijing that could increase tensions, analysts said.
"It seems there isn't urgency to move forward and perhaps even a preference to leave this decision to Bush's successor," said Bonnie S. Glaser, an analyst with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The Harpoon deal also signals improved relations between Washington and Taiwan. These were strained under former Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, known for his provocative policies and inflammatory statements.