For Beijing, Taiwan issue is still key to Sino-US ties

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 January, 2011, 12:00am

Taiwan is still the biggest sticking point in Sino-US relations, a top Beijing diplomat said yesterday, just as news emerged in Washington that another round of arms sales to Taiwan is scheduled after President Hu Jintao wraps up his four-day state visit to the US next week.

Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai told a forum on 'Sino-US relations in a new era' that ties had 'progressed through difficulties and challenges' over the past 30 years.

'Some problems are long-standing ... of the most important, and most sensitive, is the Taiwan issue, which concerns China's core interest of sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as the political foundation of Sino-US relations,' Cui said. 'If the Taiwan issue is resolved, Sino-US relations can develop smoothly; otherwise, they will be interrupted.'

The turmoil in Sino-US relations last year began with America's approval of the sale of US$6.4 billion worth of arms to Taiwan in February, which drew vehement protests from Beijing and resulted in military ties being severed for eight months.

According to an opinion piece in The Washington Times on Wednesday, a new arms package worth up to US$4 billion, comprising new electronics, engines and missiles to upgrade Taiwan's ageing arsenal of 145 US-made F-16 A/B jet fighters, has already been approved by all US agencies except the State Department.

Taiwan's Defence Ministry and air force said they had not heard of the deal but a legislator familiar with the island's arms purchases, Lin Yu-fang, said the leaked information made sense, Taiwan's Central News Agency reported. Taiwan has been seeking more modern F-16 C/D models but the US has resisted.

When asked about new arms sales, Cui's reply was milder than Beijing's rhetoric in February.

'US arms sales to Taiwan is an old problem,' he said. 'The US made promises in the 8.17 Joint Communique signed in 1982. Of course for so many years the US did not live up to its promises. We hope the US can really fulfil these promises.'

Analysts say a new round of arms sales will not throw fragile Sino-US relations back to square one if the two sides are committed to improving relations. 'It is impossible for the US not to sell arms to Taiwan, and it is not possible for China not to respond strongly,' said Professor Li Mingjiang from the school of international studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. 'However, both sides can still fine-tune their actions. For example, depending on the actual content of the arms sales, the timing of the sales, the frequency etc, China might adjust by not completely severing military contacts, or not do so for so long.

Professor Liu Ming from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said that what Beijing wanted most was to get the US to the negotiating table on the Taiwan issue.

'Both sides would likely have learned a hard lesson from last year and will not push it so far this time,' Liu said, pointing out that US Defence Secretary Dr Robert Gates had, on Monday, connected arms sales and improved cross-strait relations for the first time.

While reiterating that the US was not going to change its policy of selling arms to Taiwan, Gates also said after a meeting with Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie that 'clearly over time, if the environment changed and if the relationship between China and Taiwan continued to improve and the security environment for Taiwan changed, then perhaps that would create the conditions for re-examining all of this.'

But it would be 'an evolutionary and a long-term process', he said.

Cui also emphasised yesterday Beijing's adherence to Deng Xiaoping's diplomatic doctrine of 'hide your brightness, bide your time' - tao guang yang hui - which means it does not seek aggression and hegemony.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama held his first meeting with advocates of human rights in China at the White House on Thursday.

US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke complained that China often fails to keep promises to open its markets and called for a 'more equitable commercial relationship'.