BEIJING – China suspended military exchanges with the United States and threatened sanctions against American defense companies Saturday, just hours after Washington announced $6.4 billion in planned arms sales to Taiwan.
The development has further strained the complex relations between the two powers, which are increasingly linked by security and economic issues.
China’s Defense Ministry said the sales to self-governing Taiwan, which the mainland claims as its own, cause “severe harm” to overall U.S.-China cooperation, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported. The Foreign Ministry threatened sanctions against U.S. companies involved in the arms sales.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy, Susan Stevenson, had no comment on China’s actions Saturday.
Taiwan is the most sensitive topic in U.S.-China relations, and the sales announced Friday could complicate cooperation between the two sides on issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to the loosening of Internet controls, including a Google-China standoff over censorship.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei warned U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman that the sales of Black Hawk helicopters, Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles and other weapons to Taiwan would “cause consequences that both sides are unwilling to see,” a ministry statement said Saturday.
The United States is Taiwan’s most important ally and largest arms supplier, and it’s bound by law to ensure the island is able to respond to Chinese threats.
China responds angrily to any proposed arms sale, however, and it also cut off military ties with the U.S. in 2008 after the former Bush administration announced a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Taiwan.
Washington has tried to use military visits to build trust with Beijing and learn more about the aims of its massive military buildup.
Overall ties have been tense as President Barack Obama plans to meet with the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, this year. It’s not known whether the Taiwan arms sale will affect President Hu Jintao’s expected visit to the U.S. this year.
Experts on China warned Beijing could take further steps to punish the United States to show its newfound power and confidence in world affairs.
Jin Canrong, a professor of international studies at China’s Renmin University, said the sale would give Beijing a “fair and proper reason” to accelerate weapons testing. China test-fired rockets in recent weeks for an anti-missile defense system in what security experts said was a display of anger at the pending arms sale.
“The U.S. will pay a price for this. Starting now, China will make some substantial retaliation, such as reducing cooperation on the North Korea and Iran nuclear issues and anti-terrorism work,” Jin added.
The latest suspension of military ties should affect planned visits to China by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. A visit to the U.S. by the Chinese military’s chief of the general staff, Gen. Chen Bingde, could also be called off.
The U.S. Congress has 30 days to comment on the newest arms sales before the plan goes forward. Lawmakers traditionally have supported such sales.
Though Taiwan’s ties with China have warmed considerably since Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou took office 20 months ago, Beijing has threatened to invade if the island ever formalizes its de facto independence. China has more than 1,000 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan.
Obama’s national security adviser, Jim Jones, said in a speech Friday that both Washington and Beijing do things “periodically that may not make everybody completely happy” but that the United States is “bent toward a new relationship with China as a rising power in the world.”
The arms package dodges a thorny issue: more advanced F-16 fighter jets that Taiwan covets are not included.
The Pentagon’s decision not to include the fighters and a design plan for diesel submarines — two items Taiwan wants most — “shows that the Obama administration is deeply concerned about China’s response,” said Wang Kao-cheng, a defense expert at Taipei’s Tamkang University.
Taiwan’s Ma told reporters Saturday that the deal should not anger the mainland because the weapons are defensive, not offensive.
“The weapons sale decision will … allow us to have more confidence and sense of security in developing cross-Strait relations,” he said.