By Vivian Salama
WASHINGTON -- As the U.S. pursues the sale of more than $2 billion of tanks and other weapons to Taiwan, the Trump administration is split over the potential repercussions the deal may have on efforts to reignite trade talks with China.
Concerns are growing among some in the administration that China's president, Xi Jinping, may use the weapons deal as one more excuse not to meet with Mr. Trump later this month on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Japan, according to three White House and administration officials.
One of the officials said there is already only "a 50-50 chance" of those talks happening, given how fragile the relationship has become over Mr. Trump's escalating tariffs, and the weapons sale may jeopardize even those chances. But others, including national security adviser John Bolton, see the sale as necessary for strengthening Washington's alliance with Taiwan and countering Chinese aggression.
In theory, the weapons deal is a business opportunity Mr. Trump would see as bolstering the U.S. economy. But it also could have short-term implications on his efforts to strike a deal with the world's second-largest economy.
China sees Taiwan as a breakaway province to be reunified with the mainland one day and has never renounced the use of force to bring the self-ruled island under its control. The U.S. is the main arms supplier to Taiwan, but recognizes China and has formal ties with it rather than with Taiwan, in keeping with China's "One China" policy.
For a time after Mr. Trump was elected president, this policy appeared to be on the brink of change. Weeks after the 2016 election, Mr. Trump spoke by telephone with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. That broke with decades of U.S. policy of the president or president-elect not communicating directly with Taiwan's leader and infuriated the Chinese government.
After taking office, Mr. Trump focused on developing a better trade arrangement with China -- albeit through the use of punitive tariffs, which he believes to be an effective compliance mechanism -- and Taiwan took a back seat.
But many within the administration, including foreign policy hawks, view closer ties with Taiwan as essential for U.S. national security interests in Asia, mainly as a counterpoint to Chinese aggression, and have pursued this policy throughout Mr. Trump's time in office.
Then in March a year ago, Taiwan was back on the president's radar -- in a very different light. Mr. Trump's trade tit-for-tat with China had begun, and he was eager to get the Chinese to the table.
Beijing was already furious over a law signed by Mr. Trump that encourages the U.S. to send senior officials to Taiwan to meet Taiwanese counterparts and vice versa. Mr. Trump got word that a State Department diplomat, Alex Wong, had traveled to Taipei, Taiwan's capital, to communicate the Trump administration's commitment to closer ties with the island.
Mr. Trump sounded off to his aides.
"Who the f -- k is this guy?" he lashed out, referring to Mr. Wong, and questioned what U.S. diplomats were doing in Taiwan, according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussion. The president requested that no American diplomats travel to Taiwan while he is working on a deal with China.
Mr. Wong serves as deputy assistant secretary for North Korea in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He is also the deputy special representative for North Korea. While in Taipei in March last year, Mr. Wong communicated America's strong U.S. commitment to Taiwan and described the island as an inspiration to the rest of the Indo-Pacific region.
Mr. Wong, the State Department and the White House didn't respond to requests for comment.
Warmer relations continued to grow with Taiwan, despite the president's objections, according to multiple current and former administration officials. Regional tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea have flared up in recent months, and Mr. Trump's national security aides, as well as many Republican lawmakers, see closer U.S. ties to Taiwan as imperative to regional security.
Aides explained to Mr. Trump the strategic importance of Taiwan, the officials said, persuading him that a stronger U.S. presence there counters any plans by China to expand its influence beyond the mainland. Many Republicans also view support for Taiwan's budding democracy as a policy priority.
It took some convincing, but Mr. Trump came around, the officials said, and he now sees the value in using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in his talks with China.
The White House didn't respond to a request for comment.
And the administration is growing increasingly vocal in its support for Taiwan. Mr. Bolton wrote on Twitter in April that "Chinese military provocation won't win any hearts or minds in Taiwan, but they will strengthen the resolve of people everywhere who value democracy."
Mr. Bolton also hosted Taiwan's national security chief, David Lee, last month, marking the first public visit to Washington of its kind since the two countries ended formal diplomatic ties in 1979.
Typically, the foreign military sales process begins when a country submits a formal letter of request that specifies a desired military capability and a rough price. The State Department manages the process, in close partnership with the Defense Department, which works with U.S. defense contractors. Sales are approved after U.S. government review and congressional notification, when required.
Taiwan's defense ministry has asked for 108 cutting-edge M1A2 Abrams tanks, 1,240 TOW antiarmor missiles, 409 Javelin antitank missiles and 250 Stinger man-portable air defense systems -- all defensive weapons that can't reach the Chinese mainland.
An informal notification of the proposed sale was sent to Congress earlier this month.
A sale isn't currently expected to receive any pushback on Capitol Hill.
Responding to news of the pending sale, China's foreign ministry spokesman said, "We urge the U.S. to fully understand the high sensitivity and serious harm of the issue of arms sales to Taiwan and abide by the One China principle."
Taiwan has also requested more than 60 F-16 jet fighters, an order that may face significant hurdles. Officials say that it's the latter deal that, while good for the U.S. economy, could deal a serious blow to the U.S.-China relationship because jets can reach the mainland.
"There is growing anxiety in China that the administration is really pushing the envelope and no longer adhering to any sense of maintaining an unofficial relationship with Taiwan and maybe even moving toward abandoning the One China policy," said Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The only way you get through to this president is to do it in person," she added. "If Xi Jinping wants to register his complaints about the Taiwan weapons, he needs to do it in person."
Write to Vivian Salama at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 17, 2019 17:33 ET (21:33 GMT)
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