Three weeks after the president's visit to China, the Obama administration is getting ready to announce a package of arms sales to Taiwan that could complicate delicate relations between Washington and Beijing.
According to Taiwanese government sources, the package includes most of the items the United States and Taiwan agreed upon previously, but not F-16s or submarines. The sale could result in a stalling of the recently renewed military-to-military ties between the U.S. and China, which were restarted with fanfare this summer.
"There will be an arms package [sent from the White House to Congress for approval] but they never told us exactly what the items will be," said one Taiwanese government source, who added, "From other information that we gathered it seems to us the F-16 will not be in this decision or anytime soon."
Taiwan's deputy national security advisor, Ho Szu-yin, is in Washington this week and is said to be talking with the administration about the issue.
The Obama White House has been extremely cagey about whether the Taiwan arms sales would continue, in what form, and when. Eager to set U.S.-China relations on the right foot, U.S. officials have kept Taiwan's diplomats at arm's length, according to Taiwanese sources, giving them little information on the arms-sales package.
White House officials did tell the Taiwanese not to submit a request letter for the F-16s (so they wouldn't have to reject it), the sources said. That's the same as what happened under the last administration when, on three occasions, the Taiwanese tried to submit a letter of request for F-16s to Bush. Back then, a Taiwanese government source explained, the Bush White House said, "[D]on't do it right now, it's not good timing. You will get an answer you don't want to hear."
The Obama administration also told the Taiwanese that the arms-sales announcement would come only after the president's trip to Beijing and indicated the announcement would come before his trip to Copenhagen, which is currently slated for Dec. 18. Taiwanese sources now say they expect the decision shortly after Obama returns from the climate-change conference.
Although largely silent in the public arena, administration officials have indicated that the sales are moving forward.
"I can assure you this administration will not waiver in its commitment to provide those defense articles and services necessary for Taiwan's defense," Assistant Secretary of Defense Chip Gregson told the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council in September.
China has made clear its opposition to any new U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, telling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as much directly during the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Washington in July.
The People's Republic of China also lobbied the U.S. to scrap the planned arms sale to Taiwan during a June visit to Beijing by Michèle Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy. Flournoy's visit was also when the Chinese agreed to resume the mil-to-mil discussions.
Now there is a concern that China will halt that cooperation, for at least a time, and take other punitive measures to protest the impending Taiwan arms deal. The PRC cut off military-to-military relations with the United States following the 2008 sale of arms to Taiwan by the Bush administration.
Some experts say it's not a huge issue.
"Given the broad agenda that Presidents Obama and Hu [Jintao] laid out in Beijing last month, I expect China to register their complaints, register their disapproval, and then move on," said Abe Denmark, Asia expert at the Center for a New American Security.
The Taiwanese government has already budgeted around $4 billion to purchase 66 F-16s, but Taiwanese officials do not expect a deal to happen. The initial agreement also raised the possibility of Taiwan purchasing diesel submarines, but that is also seen as very unlikely.
F-16 sales are also an issue for members of the U.S. Congress, who are concerned that the production line for the planes might shut down if foreign sales trail off. But when the White House sends whatever arms deal it decides on to Congress, only the Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-MA, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, have the right to object and neither is likely to do so.
A host of items remain left over from the arms-sales agreement made between the Taiwanese government and the Bush administration, including Black Hawk helicopters and Patriot missile batteries, both of which are expected to be in the package. The Bush team put through some arms sales to Taiwan just before leaving office, including Apache helicopters and destroyers.
The Obama administration is clear on its support for standing policies regarding Taiwan, including adhering to the Taiwan Relations Act, which pledges that America will help Taiwan maintain its defense capabilities. But over the years, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have become a political football, more symbolic than strategic considering the towering and growing imbalance of power across the Taiwan Strait. China continues to build up its missile inventory opposite Taiwan, which is now estimated to top 1,300 missiles capable of hitting Taiwan.
"These arms sales are at least partially a response to China's military buildup opposite Taiwan," said one Asia hand. "The rapprochement across the strait simply hasn't been reflected in China's military deployment."
When the sale is announced, pundits on both sides of the Pacific will be sure to praise or decry the move as Obama either bravely standing by Taiwan or dangerously thumbing his nose at the Chinese. But following the harsh criticism of his trip to Beijing, criticism that the White House feels was unfair and unsupported, the White House is looking for a new story line.
One Asia hand said that the White House might see the arms-sales announcement as "a repudiation of the critics of the president's trip to Beijing," because it combats the perception that Obama is kowtowing to the Chinese.
"This shows that China policy occurs in more than one-week increments; you can't judge the success or failure from one trip," the expert said.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)