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. 

AP/File
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China’s rebuke is expected to be light compared to past remonstrations, as the ships are to replace outdated 20-year-old frigates and are said not to add next generation technology to Taiwan’s military, analysts say.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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.