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Analysis: Taiwan says hello to arms

Taiwan asked for weapons from the US years ago, and most on the island back the deal.

A child runs past a torpedo on display outside the Taiwan Armed Forces Museum in Taipei, Jan. 30, 2010. The Obama administration notified Congress on Jan. 29 of its first proposed arms sales to Taiwan, a potential $6.4 billion package. U.S. officials said the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency was proposing to sell Taiwan UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, Patriot "Advanced Capability" missile defenses known as PAC-3 and a command and control program operations deal. (Pichi Chuang/Reuters)

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwan's reaction to America's formal offer of $6.4 billion in weaponry could be summed up as follows: "Thanks — but next time, give us the good stuff. And can we talk about the price?"

Across the Taiwan Strait, China's government and netizens are lashing out at Washington over the deal. But they're conveniently overlooking a couple things. Taiwan asked for the weapons years ago. And despite warming cross-strait relations, most Taiwanese back the deal.

Here, as in Beijing, the offer is seen first and foremost for its political symbolism. With the deal, the United States is signaling that it's in Taiwan's corner.

"It sends a message to China that the U.S. is still concerned about Taiwan," said retired banker Robert Lin, 75, as he and his wife Y.K. finished up lunch in Taipei on Monday. "If the U.S. didn't sell us the weapons, the message is very clear that they don't care."

Like many here, Lin and his wife don't think Taiwan could go toe-to-toe with China in a fight, with or without the weapons cleared for sale last week. Those include 60 Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles, anti-ship missiles, mine-sweeping ships and sophisticated command-and-control software.

"If China attacked, it would be very hard for us to resist," said Lin. So U.S. political and military support is critical.

Most Taiwanese back economic engagement with China. But the number supporting political unification with China is under 10 percent and falling. Only America will sell Taiwan the weapons it needs to prevent being gobbled up by its neighbor.

A Global Views Survey Research Center poll last year found that 48 percent thought it necessary for Taiwan to purchase better weapons, while 37 percent thought it unnecessary.

An Apple Daily poll released Sunday found that 57 percent support buying the arms offered last week, while 30 percent said they weren't necessary (13 percent expressed no view).

The Apple Daily put the U.S. arms news on its front page Sunday, and posted one of its "Action News" clips, made famous by the Tiger Woods animations. (Watch the clip on Youtube. The highlight: the entire island of Taiwan blinking red in alarm at 0:48.)

The daily also parsed U.S. officials' comments, fretting that America's "six assurances" to Taiwan may not be so sure anymore.

That refers to Ronald Reagan's 1982 commitments to a nervous Taiwan as America moved closer to Beijing. Those promises to Taipei included that the U.S. would not consult with Beijing before selling arms to the island, and that Washington's promise to Beijing to curb arms sales to Taiwan was conditioned on Beijing committing to a non-military solution of cross-strait differences.