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China threatens sanctions over arms sale to Taiwan

Angered by a $6 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, Beijing puts security exchanges with U.S. on hold and threatens sanctions against U.S. firms selling to Taipei.

January 31, 2010|By Barbara Demick
  • Taiwanese navy personnel line up on deck in Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan. China said its national security was endangered by the $6-billion U.S. arms sale.
Taiwanese navy personnel line up on deck in Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan.… (Chiang Ying-ying / Associated…)

Reporting from Beijing — The Chinese government Saturday announced a series of harsh retaliatory measures in protest of the Pentagon's $6-billion arms sale to Taiwan, including a suspension of security exchanges and threatened sanctions on U.S. companies selling to Taiwan.

"The U.S. decision seriously endangers China's national security and harms China's core interests," the Defense Ministry said in a statement attributed to spokesman Huang Xueping.

Denunciations from Beijing over arms sales to Taiwan have an element of ritual about them, but the threat of sanctions on U.S. arms contractors is a new one. It remains to be seen whether China will follow through, given its need for commercial aircraft and aviation systems.

"The United States has been telling China how much they need their cooperation on a range of issues from climate change to the economy. This has fed a sense from Beijing that they have more leverage than in the past," said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"But Beijing doesn't want to overreach. . . . In the aftermath of the Google incident, Beijing needs to think carefully before taking measures that would sour the business community on China."

Tensions have flared in recent months over Google's accusation that China was behind a series of computer attacks, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has stepped in to chide China about Internet censorship.

The United States has also admonished Beijing over its reluctance to join in a fresh round of international sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program. And the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, plans to visit the U.S. next month and is expected to seek a meeting with President Obama -- a move sure to infuriate Beijing.

The biggest immediate casualty of the Taiwan arms sale may be Obama's nuclear security summit planned for April. It had been hoped that Chinese President Hu Jintao would attend; now China is more likely to send a lower-ranking official.

In addition, an expected visit to Beijing by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates this year could be put off.

But in various statements Saturday, the Chinese government used the word "postpone" rather than "cancel," hinting that normal dialogue will resume after several months.

On Saturday, the U.S. State Department defended the arms deal, saying, "such sales contribute to maintaining security and stability across the Taiwan Strait."

Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the United States is committed to supplying Taiwan with arms to defend itself against an attack by the mainland. China considers Taiwan to be a breakaway province.

China's tough language may be aimed at preventing the United States from selling the F-16 fighter planes that Taiwan has been requesting to replace its aging fleet. The Obama administration has not made a decision on the planes. The arms sale is part of a larger package that was approved in 2001 by then-President George W. Bush.

The U.S. company most likely to be affected if China follows through on its threat to punish contractors is Boeing Co., which manufactures the Harpoon missiles that are part of the Taiwan package. Boeing also sells commercial aircraft in China.

The arms sale comes at a time when China's relations with Taiwan are better than ever before, with a mainland-friendly government in place in Taipei since 2008.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou told reporters Saturday that the arms sale would give "Taiwan more confidence and a sense of security to go forward in developing cross-strait relations."

barbara.demick@latimes.com

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