China's Temper Tantrum

The Taiwan arms sale won’t wreck our relationship with Beijing—and Chinese threats to the contrary are mostly hot air.

Following the White House's low-key Friday afternoon announcement that it had notified Congress of its intent to sell a weapons package to Taiwan, China responded with a level of outrage that was predictable and expected. The mainland's English and Chinese media blasted the decision, labeling Washington as "arrogant" and claiming that the decision would do "serious harm" to the U.S.-China relationship. China's anger is palpable and it is tinged with frustration at being unable to coerce Washington, but any assertion that the decision to sell arms to Taiwan will somehow wreck the overall U.S.-China relationship is wrong.

It is unlikely that either side has yet or will soon miscalculate and send the U.S.-China relationship into a complete tailspin. The American sale of short-range, defensive weapons and even the decision to notify Congress on a quiet Friday afternoon indicate that the United States is seeking to avoid provoking Beijing. The package itself, containing antimissile batteries and helicopters that China also wants to acquire leaves out the most "offensive" weapons that Taiwan seeks-F-16's with ground attack capabilities and diesel-electric submarines-further indicating American restraint. China, having recently demonstrated its own antiballistic missile capabilities, has a hard time arguing against the sale of Patriot batteries, which are politically attractive to the Taiwanese people who live in the cross hairs of 1,400 PLA missiles pointing at them.

China is particularly frustrated with its limited options to effectively coerce the United States to stop providing for Taiwan's defense. As expected, Beijing announced a cessation to military-to-military contacts with the Washington. But this will likely have little impact, as it is apparent that mil-mil relations were not meeting the expectations of Pentagon officials and flag officers in the services. In the brief intervals when mil-mil relations were in full swing, they did little to shed light on Chinese military decision-making or other aspects of transparency. Mil-mil talks also failed to make progress on U.S. priorities, such as an agreement to prevent collisions at sea between U.S. and Chinese vessels known as an "incidents at sea agreement," something the United States successfully negotiated with the Soviets in 1972 at the height of the Cold War.

Additional Chinese threats (made mostly by nongovernment analysts) that China will no longer help America on "its" issues, such as North Korea, Iran, or climate change because America will not bend on "their" issues of Taiwan and Tibet, are also a sign of frustration. Getting the DPRK back to the nuclear negotiating table has proven beyond Beijing's ability thus far, and China's response to U.S. and European proposals to increase pressure through sanctions on a truculent Iran have not met international expectations. Many climate-change experts feel that China snubbed the United States in Copenhagen this December, despite agreeing to the outcomes at the very end, leaving some in the U.S. government to question's China's commitment to taking meaningful responsibility for curtailing future CO2 emissions. By selling arms to Taiwan, what "cooperation" is the United States really giving up? Nonproliferation and climate change are not bilateral issues but global and regional ones. China can not refuse to cooperate in these areas without becoming diplomatically isolated from the rest of the world.

China's threat to sanction American companies who provide arms to Taiwan is a new wrinkle to China's response, but one that will likely have little impact. First of all, China has long opposed the use of sanctions in principle, particularly sanctions unilaterally declared outside of the UN Security Council. It is unlikely China will raise the issue in the Security Council and risk having a debate about something it considers a domestic issue becoming part of the UN's agenda. For the individual companies involved by and large, their bread is buttered by the Pentagon, not some hope that China represents a large future market for their high-tech products. For companies like United Technologies and Boeing, which have significant investments in and trade with China, they might be more vulnerable to Chinese threats. But Beijing has to tread a fine line and not scare away the international business community upon which China's economy still depends. Threats and sanctions will possibly dampen global enthusiasm for future investments in China, particularly conglomerates that fear being coerced to provide sensitive technologies to the country. Refusing to buy Boeing civilian aircraft leaves the Chinese government vulnerable to a virtual monopoly by Airbus. Shuttering China-based factories owned by different divisions of conglomerates involved in the arms sales hurts Chinese workers. China has few palatable options for economic coercion; even selling large quantities of U.S. Treasury bills would have negative consequences for the Chinese economy.