Why China's response to US arms sales to Taiwan is so muted

In an effort to maintain ties with the US ahead of a major shift in China's leadership, China's response on a multimillion dollar arms sale to Taiwan, a normally divisive subject, appears muted.

A week after Washington announced a multimillion dollar arms sale to Taiwan, the Chinese government appears unwilling to do much more about it than issue fierce rhetorical protests, according to political analysts here, in an effort to not disrupt ties with the US ahead of a major shift in China's leadership.

Two previous US arms deals with the island that Beijing regards as a renegade province seriously disrupted Sino-US military relations; this time seems to be different.

“The government would hate to see a deterioration in relations with the US at the moment,” says Shi Yinhong, an expert on US affairs at Renmin university in Beijing. “They won’t make more than a minimum response.”

A senior US official said Monday he had been told by the Chinese that “some activities, as part of the military-to-military program, will be postponed, rescheduled or canceled” in retaliation for the $5.8 billion arms sale.

Sources familiar with Beijing’s decision say that, so far, the government has postponed only three events: a planned US-Chinese anti-piracy naval exercise, an upcoming trip to Beijing by Adm. Robert Willard, head of the US Pacific Command, and a tour of China by a US marching band.

This is a far cry from the 10 month total break in military relations between China and the US that Beijing decreed in January 2010 to protest a $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. Two years earlier, Beijing also cut off military ties for five months in response to another arms sale by the Bush administration. Beijing has not publicly announced its decision.

US officials insist they are obliged by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to supply Taipei with defensive weapons.

“China’s leaders do not want to make this too big an event,” suggests Professor Shi, because they do not want to muddy the waters before Vice President Xi Jinping – tipped to become president next year – visits Washington in early 2012. Nor are they keen to complicate their most important international relationship in the run up to the leadership change, Shi adds.

At the same time, points out Sun Zhe, head of Tsinghua University’s Institute of US-China Relations, “one consideration” moderating Beijing’s reaction to the arms sale is that it should boost the chances of Taiwanese president Ma Ying Jeou at next January’s elections. President Ma has improved relations with the mainland to their most cordial level since the two sides split amid civil war in 1949.

“It’s a hard choice by the Chinese government,” given the depth of its opposition to US arms deals with Taiwan, adds Professor Sun. “But China’s reaction will probably be low profile and not exaggerated,” even if “military people here are actually very, very angry” that Washington continues to sell weapons to Taiwan in the teeth of Chinese opposition.

Beijing can also take consolation from the fact that President Obama agreed only to upgrade Taiwan’s aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets, and has made no decision on Taiwan’s request for new planes.

That has not cooled official rhetoric, however. A commentary by the official Xinhua news agency referred to the arms deal as “a despicable breach of faith in international relations, only to gravely enrage China, as it is nothing but a blunt interference in China’s internal affairs.”

“The words are strong,” says Shi, “but the deeds will be more limited.”

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