September 16, 2011 / 5:05 AM / 8 years ago

Insight: Looming U.S. decision on Taiwan risks China rift

BEIJING (Reuters) - The Obama administration’s impending decision on arms sales to Taiwan is likely to strain the diplomatic truce between the United States and China, which faces rising domestic demands to wield its growing power against debt-saddled Washington.

A soldier stands guard at the Mashan observatory in Kinmen, one of Taiwan's offshore islands, August 22, 2011. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

Throughout this year, Washington and Beijing have sought to stabilize ties before both enter attention-sapping political seasons in 2012, when President Barack Obama faces re-election and China’s Communist Party leadership changes hands.

But Sino-American quarrelling is likely to resume for a while if, as seems likely, the U.S. government announces before October 1 that it will offer to sell more weapons to Taiwan, the self-ruled island that Beijing deems a breakaway province.

The Washington Times said the Obama administration could brief the Congress on a Taiwan arms package as early as Friday, but the White House declined comment.

The deal could sour the mood between the world’s two biggest economies at a jittery time for global markets, even if China confines its response to angry words and largely symbolic recriminations, said several experts.

“China will oppose in principle any decision to sell weapons to Taiwan, but how China expresses its opposition and how strongly will depend on the substance of the decision,” said Wu Xinbo, deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

On Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry repeated its opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Washington should “avoid any unnecessary disturbance and damage to bilateral ties,” the ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

“Our stance on this is very resolute,” she said.

Taiwan has been a perennial source of discord between the United States and China. But nowadays China also faces growing expectations at home that it will use its growing strength to press demands abroad, especially when the United States and other Western nations are beset by economic woes.

UNACCEPTABLE

“I think that whether it’s the (Chinese) government or the public, there’s a deepening feeling that U.S. arms sales are increasingly unacceptable to China — that this problem should not keep dragging on,” Wu of Fudan University said in a telephone interview.

China calls the U.S. arms sales meddling in a domestic dispute. It has never renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control, especially if Taiwan formally seeks independence.

Washington says it wants Taiwan and China to settle their dispute peacefully and is obliged by U.S. law to help the island defend itself.

Chinese analysts expect a vehement reaction to the impending announcement because of the sense that China is growing more powerful.

“Many members of the Chinese public believe their country is quickly becoming strong, and the United States is in decline, so we should no longer be afraid of the United States, and not make as many concessions as the past,” Wang Jisi, a professor of international relations at Peking University, told a recent seminar in Beijing.

“I believe that clearly China will respond strongly, and the strength of the public and (media) opinion reaction may go beyond the government’s response,” said Wang.

China has been loud about opposing any U.S. offer to sell Taiwan advanced F-16 fighter jets that would bolster its air defenses. It’s unclear whether Washington will offer them this time, but China could respond strongly even if F-16s are not put forward, said Wu, the Fudan University professor.

The Washington Times said Obama had decided against including the new jets in this round of weapons offered but would give the island a $4.2 billion arms package.

“The public isn’t concerned about what specifically you sell to Taiwan. It feels that selling the weapons in itself shows the United States lacks respect for China,” Wu said.

“It’s like a friend slapping another friend on the face. It doesn’t matter whether you slap two times or three times.”

BACK TO 2010?

Last year, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan were among the disputes that ignited tensions with China, where the condemnation of the Obama administration’s decision was accompanied by a chorus of public demands, including from military officers, that China should use its growing strength to punish Washington.

Since then, the government has sought to rein in People’s Liberation Army. But Chinese media and Internet have continued to urge a tough response on any new U.S. arms offers to Taiwan.

Backed by that public anger, the Chinese government could turn an angry face to the Obama administration. But most observers said they expect China to hold back from retaliatory steps that could spook markets or overshadow meetings between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao at summits this year.

“I think the leadership is intent on keeping the relationship steady despite the arms sales,” Linda Jakobson, the East Asia Program Director at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, said of China.

“I think there has been a policy decision to keep the relationship stable, but when it comes to how to avoid a downturn despite the arms sale, I think there is a diversity of views of how to do this.”

Additional reporting by Sabrina Mao; Editing by Brian Rhoads and Nick Macfie

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