When China recently unveiled a radar-evading stealth fighter jet and an anti-ship ballistic missile that could hit US aircraft carriers, a century of U.S. military dominance in the Pacific ended.
The Barack Obama-Hu Jin Tao summit did not even attempt to define the terms of an accommodation reflecting the new power realities between Washington and Beijing. Indeed, it did not address even indirectly the two Sino-US issues of greatest concern to Beijing. Instead of seeking to ease Chinese tensions with Japan by steering a middle course between Beijing and Tokyo, the White House has signaled in recent weeks that it would seek tighter military ties with Tokyo to counter Beijing, including the sale of F-35 stealth fighters to counter the new Chinese stealth capability. More important, the United States has left open the possibility of renewed arms sales to Taiwan.
The Taiwan issue has been boiling up since January 2010, when the Obama administration, over Chinese protests, sold $6.4 billion in arms to Taipei. To appease Beijing, the administration excluded a pending $5 billion package of 66 F-16 fighter jets that Taipei has been seeking for the past decade. Indeed, Chinese sources have revealed that Hu agreed to attend the nuclear security summit in June, 2010, only after the White House promised that it would not make the F-16 sale for the remainder of 2010.
Why does China care so much about arms sales to Taiwan?
It is not because Beijing is plotting to conquer the island militarily, as supporters of arms sales argue. Rather, Beijing blames Washington for delaying a peaceful transition to “One China,” which has been gaining support in both China and Taiwan through burgeoning economic interchange. “Vested interests in both China and Taiwan will resist the unification so long as they have support provided by your arms sales,” Li Shenzhi of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said.
Viewed from Beijing, Taiwan has been a compelling nationalist priority since the Qing Dynasty was forced to cede it to Japan in 1895 as the price for ending the Sino-Japanese War.
Just as past humiliations in Taiwan symbolize the impotence of earlier regimes, in the Chinese perspective, so reunification would demonstrate that a strong China has arrived on the world stage.
Beijing repeatedly reminds Washington that arms sales to Taiwan directly violate the August 1982 Second Shanghai Communiqué, in which the United States declared that it “intends to reduce its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution.”
But arms sales supporters insist that the 1982 agreement conflicts with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which authorizes the United States to provide weaponry “to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient defense capability.” But what was “sufficient” in earlier decades is overkill in the present economic and political thaw. As Adm. Bill Owens, former vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently said, the Taiwan Relations Act is now “doing more harm than good. A thoughtful review of this outdated legislation is warranted.”
The assumption that the United States, as the “only superpower,” is destined and entitled to be the paramount power in all parts of the world betrays a parochial insensitivity to the nature of the emerging global environment. For all its worldwide reach as the pacesetter in economic globalization, Washington will increasingly face a multipolar geopolitical environment. As China grows in strength, Beijing will expect to end the paramount role asserted by the United States in Asia in the aftermath of World War II. Beijing will also consider a permanent U.S. combat force presence in Korea and Japan increasingly unacceptable.
By virtue of its size and it nuclear capabilities, China is likely to consolidate its position as first among equals in an evolving Asian balance of power in which India, Japan, Indonesia, and a unified Korea will all make claims for recognition. To seek to determine the terms of this power balance and, worse still, to interfere in the final stages of the Chinese civil war by backing Taiwan could well embroil the United States in recurrent military quagmires and make prophecies of an adversarial China self-fulfilling.
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