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The Discourse in Beijing

Taiwan has moved to the front burner of US-Chinese relations

2:25 PM, Mar 10, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
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Over at The Cable, Josh Rogin reports that the Obama administration's strategic engagement with China seems to have less to do with broad foreign policy objectives than the more narrow issue of arms sales to Taiwan.

When top Obama administration officials went to Beijing last week, they had a broad agenda for discussion, including Iran, climate change, and North Korea. What did the Chinese want to talk about? Taiwan, Taiwan, and Taiwan.

Several China experts close to both sets of officials said that Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and National Security Council Senior Director Jeffrey Bader went to China with the understanding that they would have substantive discussions on some key issues of U.S. interest, but the Chinese side used the opportunity to try to bargain for an end to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, something Beijing has wanted for decades and now feels bold enough to demand.

Bold is certainly one way to put it -- Beijing has no problem sharing ballistic missile technology with Iran, selling fighter jets and small arms to the brutal Mugabe government, and propping up the massive North Korean army. China is in no position to lecture the United States on arms sales, particularly air defense assets like the Block C/D F-16 and Aegis missile technology to a small democracy like Taiwan. Rogin's report addresses this hypocrisy:

Meanwhile, although the Obama administration moved forward, eventually, with the Bush administration's left over deal to sell Taiwan some arms, the White House declined to see Taiwan any F-16 aircraft as part of the recent $6.2 billion arms sales package.

Some China watchers fear that the Obama administration is cementing a custom by which the U.S. continues to sell some arms to Taiwan while simultaneously ignoring the ongoing decline of the island's actual defense capabilities in the face of massive and increasing Chinese deployments across the Taiwan Strait.

So China has effectively leveraged the United States to discontinue supplies of basic integrated air defense systems and interceptor jets to Taiwan, while aggressively boosting their own air superiority (the PLAAF is the third largest in the world). If only Germany had been able to pull off a similar foreign policy coup prior to the Battle of Britain (by August 1940 thousands of American built aircraft were under order by the British government).

If Obama is trying to heighten tensions in the Taiwan Strait, stripping the Republic of China of their air defenses is precisely the way to go about doing it. Once Beijing can achieve air supremacy over Taiwan, invasion will follow. The world's lukewarm reaction to the Russian invasion of Georgia certainly has some gears spinning in the heads of Chinese strategists, so it's in Obama's best interest to nip a potentially volatile situation in the bud now. Sell the F-16 C/Ds to Taipei, and throw in a couple of Aegis systems in for good measure. Worst case scenario, we use those arms sales to leverage China on Iran and North Korea.

Honestly, would it kill the State Department to use a little realpolitik here?

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