Taiwan ready to buy US missile frigates amid South China Sea spats

China issues expected angry statements after Taiwan says it will buy two vessels. But purchase is the first since 2010 and has little effect on the mainland's naval advantage vis-à-vis the democratic island. 

A crew member of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy monitors on the deck of the China's aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailing on the East China Sea for sea trials, Nov. 26, 2013.

US President Obama’s approval to sell guided-missile frigates to Taiwan will not alter China's major military advantage over the island it has long called a "renegade" province. But a sale represents the first significant self-defense purchase by Taiwan in three years, and brought an expected rebuke by China.

The White House’s sign-off Thursday on the Naval Vessel Transfer Act of 2013 act, authorizing sales of four ships, prompted a formal protest from Beijing. China’s foreign ministry also told the US government to abolish the arms sales in order to help mainland China get on better with both Washington and Taipei.

Beijing sees Taiwan as part of its territory rather than as a country entitled to defend itself, and worries that the more militarily powerful US would help it in any conflict with China. The purchase comes during a year of China-driven squabbles over territory and airspace in and around the South China Sea. 

Yet China’s anger with the US is likely to fade, analysts say, given the fresh momentum in relations after Mr. Obama’s meetings in Beijing last month with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to discuss tourism, climate control and tariffs on electronic goods.

“Beijing will squawk, and Obama will rightly tune them out,” says Sean King, senior vice president with the consultancy Park Strategies in New York and Taipei. “I don't think he cares what Beijing thinks” about the sales of the naval vessels, two of which Taiwan is likely to purchase. 

China’s rebuke is expected to be light compared to past remonstrations, as the ships are to replace outdated 20-year-old frigates and are said not to add next generation technology to Taiwan’s military, analysts say. China’s fleet of 520 vessels is already five times bigger than Taiwan’s.

“These are not state-of-the-art vessels. They don’t significantly enhance Taiwan’s military capabilities,” said Raymond Wu, managing director of Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence. “It’s not something that will catch a lot of local attention.”

The US has kept peace by not approving new arms deals with Taiwan since the 2011 agreement to upgrade 146 US-made F-16 fighter jets.

When the United States approved a $6.4 billion arms package for Taiwan in 2010, including Patriot air-defense missiles and Black Hawk helicopters, China cancelled specific military exchanges with Washington and said it would sanction American defense contractors involved in the deal.

In 2008, China cut military contacts with the US for nearly 10 months after an agreement to sell arms to Taiwan.

Obama’s signature Thursday also does not guarantee a sale, which Taipei and Washington must arrange separately. It will be subject to possibly tough parliamentary approval in Taiwan and, if worth more than $50 million as expected, a nod from US Congress.

China may also try to avoid irking Taiwan over the frigates as it wants to extend six years of upbeat relations after a 60-year freeze that had occasionally brought them to the brink of war. Beijing sees its 21 trade and investment deals with Taiwan since 2008 as enticements to eventual unification.

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