China Strikes Back After Taiwan Weapons Deal

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An F-16 fighter jet takes off on a highway used as an emergency landing strip during the Han Kuang military exercise in Madou, Tainan, southern Taiwan, April 12, 2011. (Photo: Nicky Loh / Reuters)

China will likely suspend some military ties with the U.S. following the Obama administration’s approval of a $5.85 billion package of upgrades for Taiwan’s aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets and pilot training, a senior U.S. State Department official said Monday. (A transcript of the official’s briefing was posted on the State Department’s website.) That announcement comes one week after the U.S. said it would provide upgrades to aging combat aircraft supplied to Taiwan in the 1990s. The proposed upgrades, which fell short of Taiwan’s request for the sale of newer F-16 C/D jets, prompted an angry response from China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway territory that must eventually be reunited.

China’s decision to cancel some military ties was relayed to U.S. officials in recent meetings. “I think they have indicated that they’re going to suspend or to cancel or postpone a series of mil-to-mil engagements, yes, military-to-military engagements,” the U.S. official said. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi repeated China’s concerns about the deal during a meeting Monday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Clinton responded that the U.S. weapons sales, which are authorized under the Taiwan Relations Act, help preserve peace and stability in the region. She added that U.S. support for Taiwan has enabled its government to reach out to Beijing and improve relations in recent years, the official said.

China previously cancelled all interactions with the U.S. military when a previous weapons deal with Taiwan, a $6.4 billion package that that included mine-hunting ships, Black Hawk helicopters and Patriot air defense missiles, was announced in January 2010. Ties only resumed near the end of last year ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington. The U.S. has complained that this severing of military ties prevents the sort of communication and relationship building between officers that can help prevent incidents such as the 2001 collision of a Chinese fighter jet with a U.S. spy plane from triggering a broader armed conflict. So far, the fallout from this round of arms sales does not appear to be as extreme as last year. The State Department official noted that not all military interactions have been called off, but the complete extent of the fallout will take time to determine.

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.