How Will China React to U.S. Arms Deal with Taiwan?

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A Taiwan Air Force F-16 fighter lands on a section of highway during a military drill in Madou, Tainan city, April 12, 2011. (Photo: Chiang Ying-ying / AP)

The U.S. announced Wednesday that it will offer Taiwan a $5.85 billion package of upgrades to its aging fleet of F-16 fighters (pdf) and training for its pilots (pdf). The deal, which falls short of Taiwan’s request for newer F-16 C/D jets, was widely expected as details of the plan leaked out in Washington in recent weeks. Perhaps the only surprise was the price tag, which is more than $1 billion over some previously reported estimates, and within the range of the $6.4 billion January 2010 package that included two Osprey mine-hunting ships, Black Hawk helicopters and Patriot air defense missiles.

The latest package of F-16 upgrades faces an array of opposing interests. Taiwan’s supporters in the U.S. Congress say it doesn’t go far enough and have proposed legislation that would require the sales of advanced F-16 C/Ds to Taiwan. They argue those sales would not only help Taiwan defend itself against a rapidly developing Chinese military, but would also provide desperately needed jobs for American defense industry workers. Taiwan’s military welcomed the proposed deal but says it plans to continue pushing for the sale of F-16 C/Ds. China, which considers Taiwan a part of its territory that must eventually be reunited, responded with indignation. China’s Foreign Ministry summoned recently arrived U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke to complain, and in a statement on the ministry’s website (cn) spokesman Ma Zhaoxu called the proposal “an extreme interference in China’s internal affairs, (that) severely harms China’s national security and the cause of unification, harms Sino-U.S. relations and peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”

Such a response from Beijing is to be expected. What remains unanswered is how much further the Chinese side will go. When the 2010 offer was announced China broke off military relations with the U.S. for nearly a year, only resuming them ahead of President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington this January. Will China take such a step now, after the relationship between the two countries’ armed forces only recently resumed? The official Chinese media are airing calls for a tough response. The People’s Daily has a special page devoted to coverage of the issue, complete with a timeline of weapons sales to Taiwan dating to 1979 and galleries of armaments. In an interview with the People’s Daily online posted Wednesday, Major General Luo Yuan, deputy secretary-general of China Association for Military Sciences, argued that China should match its words with actions and follow the example of Russia, which vowed to deploy short-range nuclear armed missiles along its western border after the U.S. proposed developing a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The system, which was intended to guard against attacks from Iran, was cancelled in 2009. “We should let Taiwan know that what it’s buying from the U.S. isn’t ‘safety’ but ‘danger’ that might provoke the mainland to use new means to maintain its military dominance and check separatism,” the People’s Daily quoted Luo as saying. So far such talk of a tougher response is simply talk, but the volume is certain to rise in the coming days.

Austin Ramzy is Beijing correspondent for TIME. Find him on Twitter at @austinramzy. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.