On the Sidelines

The midair collision between a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet has caused no small degree of alarm in Taiwan, the island China still considers a “renegade” province. Taiwan hopes to strengthen its military against its historical rival with arms purchased from the United States, and the incident has raised concerns about whether that transaction will still occur.

Despite the return of the 24 servicemen and women of the EP-3 crew, relations between China and the United States remain strained, and will be, at least until April 18, when Beijing and Washington begin talks to address the issue of the damaged American aircraft, still in Chinese possession, and China’s demands for an end to U.S. reconnaissance flights off its coast. According to Taiwan pundits, Taiwan will undoubtedly figure into these negotiations.

An April 13 editorial in the liberal, pro-independence Taipei Times called the “hollow apology” with which Washington appeased Beijing in exchange for the safe return of the crew, “China’s old trick of ‘one sorry, [two] different interpretations.’ ” Drawing an analogy with the “One China, two interpretations” policy, the editorial went on to say that now the Bush administration has had first-hand experience with the “Chinese culture of ‘face’ and semantic traps,” and hence, could perhaps relate better to Taiwan’s dilemma.

Taiwan, which has modeled its economy and democracy after the United States, split from the Communist mainland in 1949, although the mainland has never acknowledged this. The Taiwanese government seeks to buy four U.S. Aegis-equipped Arleigh-Burke-class destroyers, as well as diesel-electric submarines and other technically advanced military equipment.

The on-line China Times remained optimistic about the United States’ intention to sell arms to Taiwan, calling the two issues of Sino-American relations and Taiwan arms sales unrelated. An April 12 editorial said, “Where’s the logic in connecting the two questions? If Sino-American relations are poor, then it makes sense to sell Taiwan the arms; if relations are good, would the U.S. then simply neglect Taiwan’s defense needs? These two questions didn’t belong together from the start.”

Opposition Kuomintang legislator Chou Cheng-chih told the Central News Agency of Taipei that he has “privately obtained assurance that the United States is ready to sell the P-3 planes [Taiwan] requested, and perhaps even the more advanced EP-3” (April 3).

But of course, that’s not entirely good news. Given that the American plane crippled in the collision was an EP-3, Chou acknowledged that this acquisition could obviously be a serious disadvantage for Taiwan. “China will take the opportunity to carefully study the aircraft’s advanced electronic warfare capabilities and develop ways to counter them,” he said.