TAIPEI (Reuters) - U.S. officials will defer any major new arms sales to Taiwan until at least 2011 as Beijing steps up pressure on Washington, where mending Sino-U.S. ties is a priority, defence analysts say.
Sales of anything more than minor parts or low-end upgrades will wait until early next year, possibly much longer, letting Taiwan trail further in the balance of power against China but advancing relations between the two superpowers, analysts say.
China has used stronger language and action this year, including the snubbing of U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates, to deter arms sales to Taiwan, the self-ruled and democratic island Beijing claims as its own and has threatened to take by force if necessary.
Taiwan depends on its staunchest informal ally the United States for arms and wants new systems to keep up with China.
The island says military strength is crucial even though the two sides have discussed trade and transit links since 2008 under China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou after decades of hostilities, lifting local financial markets.
A delay in getting new weapons systems would further tip a balance of power that already favours China, putting Beijing in an even stronger position to push any potential political resolution between the two sides.
China is rapidly modernising its military, putting particular emphasis on boosting its air force and navy. Taiwan says it has seen no sign of China removing missiles aimed at the island and estimates the number may rise from about 1,400 to as high as 2,000 this year.
Yet U.S. President Barack Obama is seen focusing more on domestic issues and ties with China, the world’s third-largest economy and holder of billions of dollars in U.S. treasuries.
“It’s a combination, the perfect storm,” said Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief with Defence News. “You’ve got Obama dealing with domestic issues, you’ve got China ramping it up and you’ve got better Taiwan-China ties.”
Some analysts anticipate a brief resumption of arms sales in early 2011 because Sino-U.S. contact normally dwindles at that time of year when both sides take holidays. But most expect Obama to defer the deals as long as China and Taiwan get along.
“Given improvement in cross-Strait relations, Washington doesn’t want to see any escalation of arms, so I don’t think anything will come out of 2011,” said Raymond Wu, managing director of Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence.
Stuck in the pipeline are an upgrade to Taiwan’s existing U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, six new cargo aircraft and an overhaul to a fleet of Lafayette frigates, Minnick said. Taiwan has also asked for 66 new later-model F-16s.
Any of those deals would outrage China, which reacted angrily when the U.S. government approved a $6.4 billion arms package earlier this year.
Increasingly confident as its economic might grows, China postponed Sino-U.S. military exchanges and threatened sanctions against U.S. firms that sell arms to Taiwan, although little has come of that threat to date.
“China’s words and actions are stronger compared to the past,” said Niu Jun, a Peking University international relations professor. “It’s not a new tactic but it’s getting stronger.”
U.S. officials are coy about the timing of future arms sales, insisting that they do not consult China. But analysts say Washington listens attentively whenever Beijing makes noise.
“When it all boils down to it, it is Chinese pressure and threats,” said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Paul Tait