China, China, China

 
 

The BBC’s three top Asia-Pacific stories this morning were all about the country, and all addressed themes that will undoubtedly be recurring for the foreseeable future – media restrictions, defence and human rights.

A report by the International Federation of Journalists says that China has over the past year increased restrictions on what the media can say. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise — anyone who expected the Beijing Olympics to herald a new era of openness could be described as optimistic at best. It’s hard, though, to see what the Chinese government thinks it will achieve in the long run. As I discovered corresponding with people when The Diplomat was blocked there, there are ways around the restrictions, and presumably finding out the information you’ve been fed is far from the whole picture doesn’t endear your leaders to you.

The rights story concerned an activist who had been camped at Tokyo’s Narita Airport since being refused entry back into China despite being a Chinese passport holder. He says he has decided to leave the airport after being visited by Chinese Embassy officials, and said that he’s confident he’ll be allowed entry into China after having been turned away eight times since June.

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But the story that has been making headlines over the weekend has been the US arms sale to Taiwan, and China’s forceful response in threatening to suspend military exchanges with the US and complaining of the ‘severe harm’ the sale would do to ties.

I asked our defence correspondent, Toshi Yoshihara, for his take on the sale and the response, and he suggested things are a little more complicated than they seem:

‘China’s reaction was widely expected.  The pattern of Sino-US interaction over arms sales to Taiwan verges on ritual.  China’s threat of sanctions against US companies, however, seems to be signs of a tougher stance.

‘The arms sales proposal is notable for two reasons.  First, the United States declined to include the sale of advanced F-16 fighters.  The Taiwanese have made quite clear through many channels that the fighters are their highest priority.  The island’s fleet of aircraft is aging and Taiwan desperately needs to recapitalize its force structure.  Air superiority is key to the defence of Taiwan and there are growing doubts in Washington that Taiwan can dominate its own skies in the coming years.  Exclusion of the fighter thus represents a major concession to China and setback to Taiwan.  My understanding is that the Obama administration also put off any plans for helping Taiwan build diesel-electric submarines, another major item on Taipei’s wish list.  Seen in this light, Washington has in fact skirted all of the most controversial issues surrounding arms sales.

‘Second, the other items, including anti-ballistic missile defence systems, helicopters, and Harpoon missiles, are not likely to tilt the balance of power in favour of Taiwan in any measurable way.  For example, China boasts over a thousand ballistic missiles that could easily overwhelm the island’s missile defences.  From a war fighting perspective, the arms package is more of a gesture and would not likely reverse the shifting cross-strait military balance.’

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