The U.S. will sell $1.83 billion in arms to Taiwan, including two guided-missile frigates, amphibious assault vehicles, surface-to-air missiles and other equipment, the White House told Congress on Wednesday.
The move predictably irritated China. Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang immediately summoned Kaye Lee, charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and made "solemn representations," the state-run New China News Agency said. Beijing regards Taiwan as a breakaway territory that must one day be reunited with the mainland.
"Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory. China strongly opposes the U.S. arms sale to Taiwan," Zheng said.
But the value of the deal is a third as large as the last such sale in 2011, a $5.8-billion package that upgraded Taiwan's aging F-16 jet fleet. That followed a $6.4-billion sale in 2010, which included 114 Patriot missiles, 60 Black Hawk helicopters, Harpoon missiles, mine-hunting ships, and communications equipment for the F-16s.
The timing of the sale seemed carefully calibrated to minimize friction with Beijing, analysts said, coming several weeks ahead of elections in Taiwan that are expected to be won by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which is far ahead in the polls.
Taiwan's incumbent president, Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party, has pursued closer relations with mainland China, signing cross-strait economic deals, initiating direct commercial airline flights, and last month meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping face to face -- the first such encounter since the two sides split in 1949 at the end of China's civil war.
Taiwan has had de facto independence since then, but the mainland has never renounced the threat of force, if needed, to make the two sides reunite.
Despite China's formal protest, the mainland's relatively warm ties with Ma may blunt the sting of the U.S. arms sale; a sale to a Democratic Progressive Party administration could send a far different signal to Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
That's because the opposition party is more skeptical about the benefits of cozying up to Beijing, and some of the party's supporters advocate pursuing outright independence from the mainland. If Washington had waited until after the Jan. 16 elections to announce the sale, it could be perceived in Beijing as a sign that the U.S. was rewarding the Democratic Progressive Party for its cooler stance toward the mainland.
Some Nationalists pointed to the deal as a sign that the United States was congratulating Ma for keeping peace with China. "This has real significance," said Nationalist legislator Tsai Chin-lung. "They're going to help a peacemaker, not a troublemaker."
But Alan Romberg, East Asia program director with the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, said the Democratic Progressive Party does not see the arms sale as a "partisan gesture," nor does the United States consider it a "bow" to the Nationalists.
"On arms sales, the only issues have been what and when," said Romberg, noting that the U.S. is obligated, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, to ensure Taipei can maintain a credible defense. "It is a matter of long-standing policy to provide defensive equipment to Taiwan."
Relations between Washington and Beijing have been tense of late, with issues including hacking allegations and China's island-building activities in the South China Sea causing particular strain. At the same time, the two countries have been managing to work together on climate change.
Before the deal's announcement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei complained Tuesday that such sales "interfere in China's internal affairs and damage the peaceful development of ties across the Taiwan Strait and Sino-U.S. ties."
But the Global Times, a mainland tabloid known for its devout nationalism and close ties to the Communist Party, also seemed to shrug off the arms deal, running an analysis saying the sale of the frigates was "more symbolic than substantial."
"This move is more symbolic to show [Washington's] support to its allies and fulfill its promise to Taiwan. But the deal will not make any substantial change because the weapons the U.S. has sold to Taiwan before are outdated," Yuan Zheng, an expert with the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the paper.
China's military is the third most powerful in the world, and Taiwan's is No. 15, according to statistical database GlobalFirepower.com.
Taiwan has shifted over the last five years toward developing its own weapons systems, because other countries are afraid of angering China by selling to the island. Taiwan's showpiece weapons include the Sky Bow II surface-to-air missile and Brave Wind 3 ship-to-ship missile.
"We need to see more frequent [sales]," said Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor and military specialist at Tamkang University in Taiwan. "We haven't had one for a few years, and this is sending a message to Beijing that the U.S. doesn't give a damn."
Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S. Taiwan Business Council, welcomed the sale but likewise complained it doesn't go far enough.
"There have been myriad initiatives in U.S.-Taiwan bilateral security relations since the last arms sale in 2011," he said in a statement Wednesday. "However, while China has deployed new fighters, submarines, and missiles during the last four years, the U.S. has consistently refused to consider providing Taiwan access to similar platforms, or even aiding their indigenous development."