The American government has approved a new sale of made-in-America arms (including Black Hawk transport helicopters and Patriot air defense missiles) for the “Republic of China” (i.e. Taiwan), and Chinese officials are making clear their displeasure, including their intention to “punish” those companies behind these sales. Already, all Sino-American military exchanges have been canceled. This hardly represents the first such American arms-sale to Taiwan, and the Chinese have reliable protested against all previous ones as well. But some observers view this latest episode as something slightly different, as perhaps expressing some sincere Chinese anger this time that could lead to trouble.
Steffen Richter of Germany’s leading commentary newspaper, Die Zeit, takes a look at this question in A case of new self-awareness, and agrees that things do seem to be a bit different this time. Of course, as he points out, one could make a case that China should just shut up, that such protests are pointless. China has long been aware of the firm American policy of support for Taiwan’s independence, enshrined in the Taiwan Act of 1979 (enacted right at the same time that Sino-American relations were coming around to a sort of cordiality, with the visit of then-Chairman Deng Xiaoping to meet President Jimmy Carter). Indeed, back in 2001 Taiwan was even angling to get submarines and F-16 fighters from the Americans (they did not, in the end), while this time they knew better than to even ask for such things.
But of course the People’s Republic is not shutting up, its public tone is rather becoming even more angry and threatening. Richter ascribes this to a new Chinese wave of self-confidence, leading to the notion that now is the time to test President Obama to see just what he is made of. There would seem to be so many areas of international policy where the US depends on China to play along, headlined by the fact that China is America’s largest creditor but then going on to issues such as climate change, Iran, North Korea, and the whole broad area of trade policy, international economic equilibrium and the pegging of the yuan against the dollar.
Maybe, in the face of all of this, Obama will blink and cancel the arms-sale; maybe he’ll even be intimidated enough to withdraw the US troops in South Korea and Japan. In the end, though, just as with currency issues, China is really not in any position truly to force any new “Ice Age” in its relations with the US, since it is still reliant on America for things like technology and know-how. Richter expects no truly serious consequences to arise from this latest flap.