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Why US ignores China and sells arms to Taiwan

Riling China, the US's newest $6.4 billion sale includes 60 Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles, and sophisticated command-and-control software.

By Jonathan AdamsCorrespondent / February 18, 2010

Military personnel display a Taiwan-developed Sky Bow surface-to-air-missile unit at an installation on Taiwan's west coast, facing China.

Jonathan Adams

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Taipei, Taiwan

The latest arms package for Taiwan, cleared for sale by the White House Jan. 29, has more political than military significance, military analysts say.

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With Taiwan playing catch-up to a rapidly modernizing People's Liberation Army (PLA), the deal does little to alter a military balance that has tipped in China's favor.

But the arms do send a political message.

Beijing always objects loudly to US arms sales to the self-ruled island it views as its own. But China has reacted more strongly than usual to this $6.4 billion package, which includes 60 Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles, minesweepers, Harpoon antiship missiles, and sophisticated command-and-control software. And for the first time, it has threatened sanctions against firms involved in the deal, which include Boeing and Sikorsky Aircraft.

"It's not purely a military issue, it's a symbol," says Arthur Ding, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies (CCAPS) in Taipei. "It signifies US support for Taiwan's democratic institutions, and for Taiwan this is very important."

Whatever the reason for China's sharper tone, it has little to do with the capabilities of the military gear offered to Taiwan, analysts say. "I don't think they're breakthrough items," says Lin Chong-pin, a professor of strategic studies at Taiwan's Tamkang University. "They're at most maintenance items."

Take the Patriots. China now has some 1,400 short-range ballistic missiles and scores of cruise missiles aimed at Taiwan. Lin said two or three Patriots are needed to knock out every Chinese missile; last week's package included 114 Patriots.

"It's a continuation of what we've been asking for, but not a great stride forward for our capabilities," says Mr. Lin.

The Blackhawks may be more significant for disaster relief on the typhoon- and flood-plagued island than for military use, he says. The command-and-control software has long been requested by Taiwan, and, according to Lin, "it doesn't make a huge difference."

Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief for Defense News, noted that the 12 Harpoon missiles were for training only.

Taiwan has long been a sticking point in US-Chinese relations. Given today's now more powerful and assertive China, Sino-American ties are even more critical now. But a modest shipment of US arms to Taiwan has elicited a strong Chinese response.

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