HONG KONG — China’s reaction to the announcement by Washington of a large arms sales package to Taiwan suggests that, 20 months after Taiwan replaced hostility with cooperation in its dealings with the mainland, Beijing still believes it will ultimately need to use force to bring about unification.

The vociferous reaction, which includes not only suspending military-to-military relations with the United States but also sanctions against American companies producing and supplying these weapons, appears to suggest that Beijing does not appreciate the fact that the Obama administration saw to it that the weapons being sold are purely defensive in nature.

The bulk of the $6.4 billion package consists of Patriot missiles, Black Hawk helicopters and minesweepers, the purpose of which is to defend Taiwan. These weapons cannot be used to attack the mainland. These weapons were requested by the government of President Ma Ying-jeou.

China seems to want a Taiwan that is militarily impotent. But a Taiwan that feels desperate is more likely to behave irrationally than one that feels secure. Only when Taiwan feels secure is it likely to voluntarily enter into agreements with China — as it has been doing — first in economic areas and, possibly, later in the political realm as well.

China should not try to damage the increasingly precarious political position of President Ma, who faces re-election in 2012. The Taiwan leader’s support ratings have plunged precipitously since he first assumed office in May 2008 and in recent months his political party, the Kuomintang, has suffered embarrassing reverses in local and legislative by-elections.

If President Ma is unable to buy defensive weapons from the U.S., his support in Taiwan will erode even further. The alternative to a Ma administration will not be another KMT leader, but rather a return of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

So, it is in China’s interest to keep Ma in power and to accept the need for him to show the Taiwan electorate that he is doing what is expected of him in overseeing the island’s defense needs. And it should not pressure Taiwan to take part in political talks before it feels ready.

China should also re-examine its own options for a future relationship between the mainland and Taiwan. Its current insistence on defining itself as a unitary state and Taiwan merely as a subordinate unit should be studied to see if there are viable alternatives. It may be easier to envisage some kind of unification between Taiwan and the mainland if the options were somewhat broader.

After all, as a group of senior Communist elders recently pointed out, the party’s position in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s was that China should become a federal republic. Perhaps it was politically expedient to advocate such a position in those days, before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Perhaps it is again politically expedient to advocate such a possibility with the idea of reaching out to Taiwan.

Besides a federation, other possible options include a confederation, which is a somewhat looser union, since its members can in theory leave if they wish. A confederation has been proposed for the Palestinians and the Jordanians.

Another possibility is a commonwealth. Members of the British Commonwealth pay allegiance to the British crown even though they are independent countries. Conceivably, Taiwan and the mainland can both be part of a Chinese commonwealth.

Even Chen Shui-bian, when he was Taiwan’s president, was willing to consider some kind of political unification. One possibly mentioned was to use the European Union as a model. Beijing has vetoed that idea since all the components of the EU are sovereign states, and it insists that Taiwan is not now and can never become a sovereign state.

Shouldn’t this position, too, be re-examined? As the late Deng Xiaoping said, it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white so long as it is able to catch mice.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. (Frank.ching@gmail.com)

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