WASHINGTON – The Obama administration announced plans Friday to sell $6.4 billion in weapons to Taiwan, including helicopters and missile defense systems, a move that’s certain to anger China, which considers the island nation a renegade province.
At the same time, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly stepped up pressure on China to reconsider its opposition to new sanctions on Iran, suggesting that a nuclear-armed Iran would destabilize the Middle East and, with it, China’s energy supplies.
Taken together, the developments appeared to portend rough times for ties between the world’s two largest economies, already strained this month over a threat by Internet giant Google to pull out of the Chinese market.
China is certain to protest the arms sale loudly, although it remains to be seen whether it will move beyond rhetoric to hardening its position on Iran, climate change, trade, purchases of U.S. Treasury securities or other issues. The last time the United States sold arms to Taiwan, in 2008, China temporarily suspended Sino-U.S. military-to-military contacts.
Senior U.S. officials said the sales were made necessary by a 1979 law that requires Washington to provide defensive weapons to Taiwan, and by China’s continued buildup of missiles and other weaponry on its side of the Taiwan Strait.
After news of the impending sale leaked earlier this week, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated Beijing’s opposition.
“If you look back at the past year, you’ll find the China-U.S. relationship generally maintained a stable momentum of growth, which didn’t come easily and needed to be cherished,” spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.
While a second senior U.S. official said the timing was coincidental, the announcement came at a sensitive point in American diplomacy with China over Iran.
Clinton met with her Chinese counterpart Thursday and apparently made little progress in reversing China’s aversion to new Iran sanctions. On Friday, she publicly warned China that it “will be under a lot of pressure” to approve additional U.N. Security Council action against Iran.
China gets much of its oil to feed its growing economy from Iran; it also resists sanctions on principle as interference in other countries’ affairs.
However, Clinton, answering questions after a speech in Paris, said that China should recognize “the destabilizing impact that a nuclear-armed Iran would have in the (Persian) Gulf, from which they receive a significant percentage of their oil supply.”
“So the argument we and others are making to China is we understand that right now, that is something that seems counterproductive to you – sanction a country from which you get so much of the natural resources your growing economy needs – but think about the longer-term implications,” she said.
With U.S. and European encouragement, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries recently have tried to shift China away from its dependence on Iran, offering Beijing reassurance about its oil supplies.