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Terrorism & Security

Taiwan arms deal sours U.S.-China relations

In a foreign military sales program, the US has sold Taiwan $18.3 billion worth of weapons between 1950 and 2006.

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The approved weapons are only about half of what Taiwan requested, in dollar terms.

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Washington gave the green light Friday to sales of Apache attack helicopters, Patriot missile batteries and other air defense systems, and fighter jet spare parts. But it reduced the number of Patriot batteries and missiles offered, and continues to sit on a request for Black Hawk helicopters and a submarine feasibility study.

The US also continues to ignore a separate request by Taiwan for 66 advanced F-16 fighter jets. Security analysts say Taiwan urgently needs those jets in order to maintain a balance of air power over the Taiwan Strait. One such analyst was quoted by Singapore's Straits Times in July:

The weapons cleared for sale Friday represent a massive layout, even if they fell short of Taiwan's wish list. Citing US government statistics, Bloomberg noted that Taiwan received $18.3 billion in weapons under the US Foreign Military Sales program in the entire period of 1950 to 2006.

The arms deal is likely to draw far more attention in China than in the US. Last year, a survey on public attitudes toward US-China relations found that Taiwan was the No. 1 concern for the Chinese public. For Americans, however, the top worry was job losses to China – showing the gap in priorities and perceptions between the two big powers.

Chinese Communist Party propaganda has reinforced popular sentiment that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China that must one day be returned to the "motherland," by force if need be. That reunification is seen as a last bit of unfinished business in China's transformation from humiliated victim of colonial predations to global power.

Meanwhile, Taiwan continues to consolidate its young democracy under the shadow of China's military threat. Numerous polls, including those published by the Election Study Center at Taipei's National Chengchi University show that a solid majority of Taiwanese want to maintain the island's political autonomy.

In August, an opinion piece in The Christian Science Monitor highlighted the high stakes of preserving healthy US-China ties, calling the relationship "the most important bilateral one of our time."

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