By John Pomfret, Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010
The Obama administration announced the sale Friday of $6 billion worth of Patriot anti-missile systems, helicopters, mine-sweeping ships and communications equipment to Taiwan in a long-expected move that sparked an angry protest from .
The sale, formally announced by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, is expected to prompt China to slow or even break military relations with the United States and cancel a visit by President Hu Jintao to Washington in April. Chinese officials have threatened other actions, including sanctions on the U.S. companies supplying the equipment or on businesses in the districts of congressional lawmakers known to be backers of Taiwan.
Its vice minister of foreign affairs, He Yafei, said China was “strongly indignant” about the arms sales to Taiwan and warned that they would have a “serious negative impact” on U.S.-China cooperation.
The weapons deal, which constitutes the second part of a package that was announced at the end of the Bush administration, comes at a time of heightened tensions between the countries, despite an intense effort by the Obama administration to improve ties with Beijing. The two are at odds over how to deal with nuclear program; they are bickering over issues involving Internet freedom and how Beijing is treating Western businesses; and soon they could clash again over Tibet.
On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and took the unusual move of publicly warning Beijing of significant trouble if Iran’s nuclear ambitions were not reined in. China has opposed slapping additional sanctions on Tehran.
“China will be under a lot of pressure to recognize the destabilizing impact that a nuclear-armed Iran would have in the Gulf, from which they receive a significant percentage of their oil supplies,” Clinton said at the end of a speech at Ecole Militaire, college for senior officers in Paris. Iran is China’s No. 3 supplier of oil, and Chinese energy companies have committed to investing more than $80 billion in Iran’s oil and gas sector.
U.S. and Chinese officials have also clashed recently over trade and investment issues, which for years constituted the bright side of their relationship. On Thursday, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said U.S. companies face too many “headaches” in China and could lose interest if Beijing backslides on openness and the rule of law.
Locke referred to a threat by Google to end its operations in China over Internet censorship. Google has also alleged that hackers from China broke into e-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
More problems could arise after a possible meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama, when the Tibetan spiritual leader visits the United States in February. China says the Dalai Lama is a separatist who wants to lead Tibet to independence.
Of all the issues, though, arms sales to Taiwan is the most sensitive to the Chinese. China views Taiwan as part of its territory and contends that U.S. arms sales to the island are, as the vice foreign minister said Friday, “a gross intervention into China’s internal affairs.”
The United States says weapons sales to Taiwan help to maintain stability in East Asia by making it more difficult for Beijing to bully Taiwan. The United States is legally obligated to provide weapons for Taiwan’s defense, under the Taiwan Relations Act.
“This is a clear demonstration of the commitment that this administration has to provide Taiwan the defensive weapons it needs,” State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said Friday.
A State Department official played down the chances of the sale hurting U.S.-Chinese relations. “We have worked through these issues before. We will work through them again,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The only silver lining for China in Friday’s announcement was that it did not include the sale of 66 F-16 C/D fighters to Taiwan. But that does not mean the Obama administration has rejected Taiwan’s request for the advanced fighters to replace its aging air force. The Defense Department is drawing up a report on the air power balance between China and Taiwan that could be used to push a decision.
Over the past month, at least six senior Chinese officials have warned the Obama administration not to sell the weapons to Taiwan, and some have raised the possibility that China might sanction the companies involved.
One weapons system, the $3.1 billion package of 60 Blackhawk helicopters, will be particularly galling to the Chinese. The United States sold China 24 Blackhawks in the mid-1980s. But China has had trouble keeping the aircraft flying because of a U.S. arms embargo imposed in 1989 after the crackdown on student-led protesters around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
After the massive Sichuan earthquake in 2008, China sought to buy spare parts, arguing that it needed the helicopters to save the injured. The U.S. government rejected China’s request.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung in London contributed to this report.