China yesterday warned the United States against selling more weapons to Taiwan, citing previous arms sales as one of the "major causes" of tension in the Taiwan Strait. The statement from the Foreign Ministry spokesman appeared a direct caution to Washington not to react to China's planned military exercises in the region by supplying more defence equipment to Taipei.
In a prepared answer, Shen Guofang added: "The question of Taiwan is always the most sensitive and most important one in Sino-US relations, and is also the key issue in deciding whether Sino-US relations can be maintained stable this year."
He said President Bill Clinton and President Jiang Zemin had reached "common understanding" in meetings last year, but that it was now "urgent" to translate this into "tangible actions". Asked about President Clinton's comments this week that China was unlikely to attack Taiwan, Mr Shen said: "I believe, if the tension in the Taiwan Strait is to be removed ... the US side should refrain from the export of large amounts of weapons to Taiwan."
Under existing contracts, Taiwan will this year start to take delivery of 150 F-16 jets from the US and 60 Mirage fighters from France; Peking does not want to see any further deals.
China is set to go ahead with large-scale war games off its south-east coast ahead of Taiwan's first democratic presidential elections on 23 March. Politicians on all sides - Peking, Washington and Taipei - are attempting to ease tensions, while stressing that Taiwan remains a serious potential flashpoint. A Chinese foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, has been in Washington this week and, amid the rhetoric, Mr Shen yesterday described Mr Li's meetings as "frank and useful".
The US has warned of "grave consequences" should China attack Taiwan but also said it did not see any imminent threat. As a gesture of goodwill, Mr Clinton this week lifted a 1989 ban on satellite technology sales to China. In Taipei, President Lee Teng-hui lambasted the planned military exercises, but recently made it clear he will not antagonise China by seeking a return visit to the US if re-elected, as expected, next month.
There is no sign of compromise from Peking, however, on any of the issues central to Sino-US relations. The row over intellectual property piracy is set to erupt again, with the US threatening sanctions over Peking's failure to honour a one-year-old agreement. With the trade negotiator Lee Sands due in Peking today, Mr Shen declared: "If the US is going to impose sanctions on China, then the one that is going to be harmed to the end is the US themselves."
Peking's psychological battle against Taiwan is also set to intensify. As well as the expected military exercises, which follow missile tests last summer and practice amphibious landings, the past weeks have seen a series of unconfirmed leaks to Hong Kong newspapers. Unnamed Chinese sources were quoted last week as saying China would announce a timetable for reunification with Taiwan, but this did not happen. There have been stories that 400,000 troops are massing in the Fujian province, which faces Taiwan, and that the exercises will start tomorrow. This week also saw one of the most virulent attacks by the official mainland media on Mr Lee and a pro-independence presidential candidate, Peng Ming-min.
It seems unlikely, however that Peking's campaign against Taiwan will have the desired effect. Though Mr Lee's Kuomintang (KMT) party this week saw its parliamentary majority cut to just one, personal support for the Taiwan President appears to be solidifying with each verbal blast from China.
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