As expected, the $6.4 billion arms deal for Taiwan that Washington announced Jan. 29 has caused the temperature of the already chilly U.S-China relationship to plummet. Defensive in nature, the weapons package includes 114 Patriot air-defense missiles, two Osprey mine-sweeping ships, 60 Black Hawk helicopters, fighter jet communications technology, machine guns and ammunition. Notably, the Obama administration rejected selling Taiwan F-16 fighter jets, calling such a move “too provocative” toward Beijing.

China, which considers Taiwan to be a part of its territory, has condemned Washington’s decision, calling the deal “rude interference in China’s internal affairs” and characterizing it as running counter to bilateral commitments made in November when U.S. President Barack Obama visited China.

Beijing has wasted no time in taking retaliatory action, suspending military and security dialogue with the United States — including high-level talks on nuclear nonproliferation, arms control and strategic security — and threatening to impose sanctions against U.S. companies involved in the weapons deal.

The Obama administration has defended its decision, saying that it is “committed to Taiwan’s defense.” While the U.S. government does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act obligates it to ensure Taiwan is capable of responding to Chinese threats and to sell Taiwan defensive weapons. China has not renounced the use of force against Taiwan, and it is estimated it has more than 1,000 ballistic missiles aimed at the island.

Washington claims that the defense package will help to maintain a balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. China’s defense budget has grown annually at a double-digit rate for more than a decade and in 2009 jumped 15 percent to $69 billion — more than seven times Taiwan’s military spending that year — and defense experts believe the balance of military power has tipped in China’s favor.

Viewed from Washington’s perspective it is understandable that it would want to bolster Taiwan’s deterrence capability. Should war erupt between the China and Taiwan, the U.S. — and possibly its regional allies — would be drawn into what could be a very costly conflict. U.S. officials and security experts have also stated that the arms package will help to reassure U.S. allies Japan and South Korea that Washington remains committed to maintaining peace and stability in Asia.

The arms deal is only the latest source of friction in China-U.S. ties. Also simmering are disputes over trade, currency rate valuations, cyber-spying and an upcoming meeting between President Obama and the Dalai Lama. Given the vital roles the U.S. and China play in the world economy and global security — their cooperation is vital for nuclear nonproliferation — Washington and Beijing should strive to put their relationship on an even keel.

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