With pressure mounting on the administration of US President Barack Obama to release the 66 F-16C/D aircraft requested by Taipei, Chinese officials have threatened that such a sale would cross a so-called “red line” that risked damaging relations between Beijing and Washington.
As defense experts and officials endeavor to explain Washington’s reluctance to release the fighter aircraft — touted as necessary to maintain a balance of air power in the Taiwan Strait — many have concluded that crossing Beijing’s red line would come at an unbearable cost to the US. However, beyond Beijing’s threat of once again suspending military exchanges with the US, the consequences of crossing the red line remain largely undefined.
When asked by the Taipei Times to help define what those costs might entail, a number of experts seemed to agree on the following conclusion: Not only would Beijing have limited retaliatory options, but the US could mitigate their impact with relative ease.
Furthermore, if the past 20 years of cross-strait negotiations are any indication, there is no correlation between major US arms sales to Taiwan and a chill in relations between Taipei and Beijing — in fact, major arms packages released in 1992, 2008 and last year were accompanied by diplomatic breakthroughs across the Strait.
“The only country that has talked about the red line is China,” said US-Taiwan Business Council president Rupert Hammond-Chambers, whose organization is closely involved in the arms sale process. “However, it has failed to identify what the implications of crossing the red line are.”
Some of the possible retaliatory measures advanced by China watchers include the sale of Chinese missile technology to “rogue” states such as Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, or a hardening Chinese policy in the South China Sea.
Following the announcement of a major arms package in January last year, senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officials also proposed, among other punishments, that Beijing sell large amounts of US Treasury bonds (which some Chinese media have described in a different context as a “nuclear option”).
However, such actions would not be beyond Washington’s ability to manage or to retaliate against, and there is doubt as to whether China would always follow through on its threats, the experts said.
“Beijing has been pushing a red line policy since the 1990s vis-a-vis former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the Dalai Lama and so on,” Willy Lam (林和立), a China specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Taipei Times. “[French President Nicolas] Sarkozy was ‘punished’ for seeing the Dalai Lama a few years ago, but the two nations have patched up since.”
Regarding the F-16s specifically, Lam said he did not see Beijing going beyond its usual saber rattling.
“I don’t think Beijing will do anything irrational, such as selling T bills, if the US were to sell the F-16s. When Washington announced the US$6.4 billion package in January 2010, Beijing vowed to penalize Boeing and other US arms manufacturers, but never carried out the threat,” he said.
For Hammond-Chambers, the most likely scenario following the release of the F-16s would be the suspension of military exchanges.
“The Chinese act in their own ‘core interest’ and are not typically swayed in the long term by short-term bilateral bumps,” he said. “Therefore, it is likely there will be no change to China’s overall policies toward other non-Taiwan policy areas and that their sole substantive action [in retaliation for the release of the F-16s] will be a further freeze of [military-to-military] contacts between the US and China.”