Whoever is elected president of the United States next month will face a crunch in relations with China over arms sales to Taiwan. Arms sales to the island government will be the most delicate issue the incoming president will have to handle in his relations with Peking.
Ronald Reagan reportedly has suggested American planes be sold both to Peking and to Taiwan. The Republican candidate says he wants to "officialize" ties with Taiwan. At the same time, he applauds Peking's strong stand against Soviet expansionism.
The Carter administration suspended arms sales to Taiwan in 1979 when it established full diplomatic relations with Peking. The suspension was only for a year, however, and it never gave up the right to supply arms to Taiwan.
Peking has categorically opposed American arms sales to Taiwan -- before, during, and after normalization of its ties with Washington.
Recently Peking reacted strongly to Reagan and Carter moves that could be interpreted as adding "officiality" to Washington's relationship with Taiwan. Peking's consistent stand is that Taiwan is legally a part of China and that any move to treat it as an independent government infringes the sovereignty of China.
Arms sales, however, are a far more substantive move.
Washington's understanding is that the two sides in effect agreed to disagree on this issue. Peking insists that it never agreed even implicitly to the continued sale of US arms to China. Nor did China explicitly agree to renounce the use of force to regain Taiwan.
Peking's objection to resumption of US arms sales to Taiwan is that it might make the Taipei authorities "cocky," Chinese sources recently said. Taiwan might be less inclined to respond to a Peking peace offensive in which the mainland promises quiet relations, trade, and a separate economic and social system if Taiwan recognized Peking's sovereignty.
A solution to this issue, observers say, will depend on what kind of arms the US decides to sell to Taiwan. For instance, selling the F-16, a more advanced fighter plane than any Peking has, would only envenom Sino-American relations.
The United States never said it would sell any and all arms to Taiwan. The key word, observers say, is "selective" arms sales, the emphasis being on arms that would unmistakably be considered defensive.