Taipei rejects, and analysts doubt, report US would consider grand bargain on Taiwan arms sales

Taipei rejects reports US prepared to enter talks on removing barriers to stronger PLA ties, such as arms sales to island, and analysts doubtful

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 6:54am

Reports in mainland state media that Beijing is seeking to set up a working group with the US on arms sales to Taiwan has put renewed focus on the military relations between Beijing, Taipei and Washington.

Defence Minister Chang Wanquan proposed several working teams, including one on arms sales to Taiwan, during meetings in Washington with US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice last Monday.

Beijing has identified arms sales to Taiwan as one of "three barriers" in Sino-US military relations. The other two are the US Congress' allegedly discriminatory legislation against Beijing and US reconnaissance flights in China's exclusive economic zone.

According to a China News Service report, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei , director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Defence Ministry, told mainland Chinese journalists in the US that "to remove the three barriers, China proposed to set up working groups to look into the issues and seek ways to resolve them. The US has given a positive response to this."

The report was also posted on the website of the Defence Ministry.

Pro-Beijing Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po also quoted Guan as saying that Chang had proposed to the US that in return for its stopping the sale of arms to Taiwan, Beijing would consider "adjusting its deployment of missiles", a phrase generally interpreted as the removal of missiles aimed at Taiwan from coastal areas. Similar suggestions were put to US President Barack Obama by President Xi Jinping during a June summit in California.

The reports triggered a strong reaction from Taipei. Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Anna Kao said the US had refuted the mainland media reports and remained committed to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

"We urge Washington to continue selling weapons to Taipei, in line with the TRA and the Six Assurances, to help maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," Kao was quoted by Taiwan media as saying. "This is also in line with the security and economic partnership between Taiwan and the US."

Since 1979, the US has been bound by the TRA, which requires Washington to "provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character" and "to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan".

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, during a visit on Friday to the island fortress of Quemoy, said Taiwan had found the report about the US' "positive response" on the arms-sales working group "to be false [after] checking various channels".

Beijing and the US did not officially comment on Taiwan's dismissal of the reports. But various state media including the Global Times, China Daily and China News Service have reported the working group's proposals without mentioning an offer to remove missiles from the coast.

Experts said both proposals were unattractive to the US.

"At a technical level it doesn't make sense, because curtailment of US arms sales to Taiwan would have a permanent impact on Taiwan's military capabilities, and the People's Republic of China could redeploy the missiles opposite Taiwan within 48 hours," said Dr Phillip Saunders, a specialist in East Asian security issues at the National Defence University in Washington.

"It would be a useful political gesture of goodwill if China unilaterally offered to pull back its missiles, but it doesn't mean too much militarily."

Oliver Brauner, a senior analyst at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's China and Global Security project, said it was "an unattractive offer" to the US.

"It wouldn't change the power balance anyway; that ship has sailed," he said, referring to Beijing's ever-increasing military advantage over Taiwan.

"It sounds gimmicky to me," said Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, about the alleged bargain. "The underlying issue is sovereignty, and there's no way of really solving that."

He added that Washington's commitment to Taiwan had changed over the years, as its interaction with Beijing had escalated and the relative power balance in the region had shifted. At the same time, Brown said, the US is not ready to walk away.