With a US$6.5 billion arms package from Washington to Taiwan almost a done deal now that the US State Department has given its stamp of approval, we find ourselves in familiar territory, with Beijing expressing its great displeasure and threatening severe ramifications for Sino-US relations.
Beijing reacted similarly when the US sold Taiwan 150 F-16s in 1992, or when, in 2001, US President George W. Bush announced the tentative package that, from 2003 until last week, would be “frozen,” for reasons that to this day remain uncertain.
Whenever the US has sold weapons systems to Taiwan, or when, as it did in 1996, the US military came to Taipei’s assistance in the heat of crisis, Beijing’s tune has remained constant: A foreign country was meddling in China’s “domestic” affairs, a situation that “seriously” threatened bilateral relations and deeply angered Beijing and the Chinese people.
A close reading of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao’s (劉建超) comments on the most recent sale, however, reveals a subtle change in Beijing’s expression of anger. This time, in addition to the usual rhetoric, China argued that “nobody could stop” the “warming” relations between Taipei and Beijing. All of a sudden, Beijing was casting the US not as an ally of Taiwan, but rather as an enemy common to both Taipei and Beijing, one that sought to hammer a wedge between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Two developments have made it possible for Beijing to adopt such rhetoric and not sound entirely incoherent. First, it is undeniable that under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), ties between Taipei and Beijing have improved — at least quantitatively, if not qualitatively. The Ma administration’s wavering and at times contradictory stance on Taiwanese sovereignty, added to its failure to object when Beijing failed to reciprocate its goodwill, may have given Beijing the impression that Taiwanese have come to terms with the notion of unification. Of course, Beijing has everything to gain by portraying the recent “rapprochement” as a stepping stone toward unification. Hence, in Chinese rhetoric the US becomes an enemy that wants to keep the two lovers apart.
The other development was Washington’s fault, made all the more potent for its conspicuous timing.
Just as news of the arms sale was reaching Taipei, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) was warning that Taipei and Beijing were perhaps getting too close for the good of the US. Many in Washington had reviled former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) for his troubling pro-independence stance, which prompted parts of the US government to meddle in the lead-up to the March elections and thus create an environment that was more conducive to a Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) win.
Now that this has come to pass, some US officials are beginning to wonder whether it was wise to discredit the pro-independence faction. The same CRS report even argued in favor of helping strengthen the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to ensure solid opposition to the KMT.
In a matter of months, thanks to the KMT government’s weak stance on sovereignty and years of US reprimands toward the DPP’s pro-independence “hardline” policies, Beijing now finds itself in a position where it can argue that Taiwan and China are facing a common enemy, one that seeks to disrupt the peace.