The Obama administration presented to the US Congress on 21 September 2011, an arms deal with Taiwan, providing among others the “updating” of 145 of Taiwan’s F-16A/B fighter jets with advanced radar and weaponry. The central point of the official protests to the development noticed so far from the Chinese foreign ministry, Defence Ministry and the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, has been that the arms sales would ‘seriously and inevitably undermine’ the Sino-US relations as well as bilateral military and security exchanges, without making clear whether there will be any Chinese retaliation and if so, in what specific form it will take place. Especially notable is the soft line taken by the Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi; he made no mention of ‘retaliation’ and called upon the two sides to respect ‘core interests’ of each other, with the hope that China and the US can overcome difficulties in bilateral ties( Address at a Business meeting, New York, 22 September 2011).
In such background, an opinion on the subject expressed through an article in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) theoretical organ ‘Qiu Shi’ (Seeking Truth) deserves close attention. Captioned “Protest against US Arms Sales to Taiwan Must Not Be Only in Words”, the write-up (Chinese, 23 September 2011), a reproduction of an original comment made by an unnamed author in the party-run Global Times (Chinese) and also carried simultaneously in other newspapers including Hongkong’s pro-Mainland Ta Kung Bao, squarely blames the Chinese foreign ministry, albeit without naming it , for following a ‘weak diplomacy’ in relations with the US, providing for no retaliation in action.
A free translation of the article’s contents has been done. The article says that though China’s official verbal protest may appear stronger than a retaliation through action if taken and may conform to the reality of Sino-US relations, in an actual sense, it lacks the required seriousness and undercuts the political trustworthiness of a great power like China. If China only plays a ‘complex game’ with the US, but does not ‘punish’ the US, questions will arise for China’s strength. The Qiu Shi /Global Times analysis demands that in dealing with US sales of arms to Taiwan, China must aim at ‘really opposing’ the US, together with adoption of ‘firm retaliatory measures’. It further states that for Chinese society, the situation of ‘big protest, but no actual retaliation’ would be a ‘suffocating’ one, and warns that a mere ‘furious look of ours’ and diplomatic measures of the concerned departments may not satisfy the public sentiments. Asking the authorities to explain to the Chinese society if they feel that the scale of US arms sales is still restrained and not to let the public to make their own ‘guess’ in that regard, the article mentions – ‘if we are really angry, we should not fear about our retaliation making the US angrier’. Acknowledging that China cannot avoid the ‘historic ‘problem of US arms sales to Taiwan, it stresses the need for the country to ‘retaliate immediately’ irrespective of whether the scale of the problem gets gradually reduced or is maintained for a long time or further expanded by the US. Noting that presently China’s discomfort level, is more serious than that of the US, the article gives a call- “Let us tolerate the US boldly, let us also retaliate against the US boldly”; in that case “Heavens will not fall, several billion dollars of arms sales will not change anything in Taiwan straits, if the US kicks China, China will kick back at the US and nothing between China and the US will change”.
Another proponent of a hardline towards the US has been Major General (Retired) Luo Yuan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and Deputy Secretary General of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences whose views often find space in the party publications. His column (Chinese, People’s Daly Online, 22 September 2011) makes a similar argument favouring a ‘Chinese retaliation against the US more than words’; it says that China should learn from the Russia’s 2008 revenge against the US, taken during their confrontation in Europe, by moving its short range missiles closer to West Europe .
While looking at the comments coming from the intellectuals in China, the picture seems to be mixed. While Professor Shi Yunhong of Renmin University in Beijing feels that the arms sales will not affect the overall Sino-US bilateral ties, Ding Hang (People’s Daily Online, 8 August 2011) holds the view that the sales will ‘spark retaliation’ and desires China’s use of its US debts as ‘ financial weapon’ against the US. A comment (China Daily, opinion column,23 September 2011) goes further by analyzing the situation strategically; it focusses on the existing ‘ strategic obstacles’ blocking the path of bilateral ties and blames Washington for ‘misjudging’ the situation as it wants to remain No.1 power in the world.
Both China and the US definitely seem to be prepared for meeting the consequences arising from the latest arms offer to Taiwan from the latter. It is difficult to predict on what specific action Beijing may take against Washington. Needing close watch in this regards will be the scenario in China prior to the impending visit to Washington by Vice-President Xi Jinping, likely to be appointed as party chief next year .
More important will be to keep a watch on further trends with respect to the CCP’s line on US relations; after all it is the party which in reality decides on the foreign policy at the level of ‘Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs’. Key questions in the current juncture will relate to how far the publicity being given by the party organs to the hawkish positions adopted by individuals on the issue of US arms sales to Taiwan, is politically significant and what is the real meaning of the recent spate of strong anti-US comments in China in the official press (for e.g , warnings by Col Liu Mingfu and Xu Yunhong about ‘encirclement’ of the country by a ‘hegemonic’ US). It can be said that hawkish viewpoints may or may not ultimately influence the making of US policy in China, but the apparent intra-party division on the subject is bound to create doubts in the minds of the people on how it will play out in future, especially at a time when a key leadership transition is due in China next year. In this connection, one is reminded of a past instance- at the time of inauguration of Bush-II regime in the US, the then foreign policy Czar Qian Qichen had launched a strong attack on Washington’s policies, though his remarks were disowned subsequently by the China Daily which carried them; this created lot of confusion at that time about China’s intentions with regard to the US.
(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai,India-Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)