The US ambassador in Peking, J Stapleton Roy, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to be told by a Vice-Foreign Minister, Liu Huaqiu, that if the United States proceeded with the sale, China 'would find it difficult to stay' in arms control talks among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Since the Gulf war they have been discussing measures to halt the flow of weapons to the Middle East.
The sale appears to undermine a decade-old commitment, which Mr Bush helped draw up, to reduce US arms sales to Taiwan, but it could earn the manufacturer, General Dynamics, some dollars 6bn ( pounds 3bn) and save nearly 6,000 jobs in Texas, a state the President needs to win if he is to be re- elected in November.
It was also a much-needed boost for Taiwan, which lost its last diplomatic foothold in East Asia last week after South Korea cut links in favour of establishing relations with China.
Taipei's Defence Minister, Chen Li-an, described the sale as 'a major political breakthrough'. In Peking, however, Mr Liu told Mr Roy that the decision 'grossly interferes in China's internal affairs' and 'seriously jeopardises Sino-US relations'.
Washington can argue that the F-16 is no longer the hi-tech fighter it was in the early 1980s, and that Taiwan needs to update its air defences to match recent heavy arms purchases by Peking. Most observers conclude, however, that short-term electoral considerations are preoccupying the administration at the expense of consistency in foreign policy or strategic interests abroad.
China may be tempted to retaliate by maintaining arms sales to unstable areas such as the Middle East, but it has carefully avoided making specific threats. The Communist leadership in Peking, which is relying on runaway economic growth to keep its hold on power, cannot afford a rupture with the US, with which it enjoys an annual trade surplus of more than dollars 13bn. Washington is threatening action against a long list of exports if China does not lift barriers to US goods by 10 October.
Mr Bush has always opposed attaching political conditions to trade with China. Peking will not want to do anything which might boost the chances of his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, who believes that the US should extract human rights concessions from China in exchange for 'most favoured nation' trading status.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content