China has summoned a senior U.S. envoy to protest Washington's announcement that it is selling two warships to Taiwan as part of a $1.83 billion arms deal.
A vice foreign minister made “solemn representations” with the United States charge d'affaires regarding the sale, according to a statement on the foreign ministry's website on Thursday.
The Obama administration announced the sale on Wednesday, drawing an immediate rebuke and threats of retaliation from Taipei's rival Beijing.
The arms package is the first offered by the U.S. to the country in four years. Even before its announcement, Beijing, which regards Taiwan as part of its territory, demanded it be scrapped to avoid harming relations across the Taiwan Strait and between China and the U.S.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, a Pentagon spokesperson said, “U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are guided by the Taiwan Relations Act and based on an assessment of Taiwan's defense needs.”
That was followed by a formal diplomatic protest late Wednesday, although at a lower level than in previous such instances.
“China resolutely opposes the sale of weapons to Taiwan by the U.S.,” Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang said in a meeting with Washington's second-highest ranking diplomat in Beijing.
“In order to safeguard the nation's interests, the Chinese side has decided to take necessary measures, including the imposition of sanctions against companies participating in the arms sale to Taiwan,” Zheng said, according to a statement posted on the ministry's website.
Such sanctions have been threatened in the past, although there's no evidence they've had any meaningful effect. American and European Union companies are banned from selling military technology to China, and Chinese companies have extensive links with major overseas firms that often have weapon-making divisions.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman, speaking on routine condition of anonymity, declined to comment on the meeting, saying, “We don't get into the content of our diplomatic discussions.”
The U.S. maintained there's no need for it to hurt the relationship, which has also been strained by China's island-building in the South China Sea and alleged cybertheft.
The administration notified Congress that the proposed arms package includes two decommissioned U.S. Navy frigates, anti-tank missiles, amphibious assault vehicles and Stinger surface-to-air missiles. There's also support for Taiwan's capabilities in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and a weapons system to defend against anti-ship missiles.
Congress has 30 days to review the sale, but it's unlikely to raise objections. There's been mounting bipartisan concern that Taiwan is inadequately armed to defend itself against an increasingly powerful mainland China, and the sale comes a year after Congress passed the Naval Transfer Act authorizing the sale of up to four Perry-class frigates to Taiwan in December 2014.
The administration has announced more than $12 billion in arms sales to Taiwan since 2010, but none since $5.9 billion in sales in September 2011 that included upgrades for Taiwan's F-16 fighter jets. That drew a high-level diplomatic protest from Beijing, which suspended some military exchanges with the United States. It did not seriously impair ties.
In the meantime, President Barack Obama has sought greater cooperation with China, and the two sides have increased military exchanges to reduce the risk of conflict.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. was in contact with both Taiwan and China about the sale, which he said was consistent with U.S. support for Taiwan's ability to defend itself under the Taiwan Relations Act.
Analysts and Congressional sources believe the sale process was held up by the administration's desire to maintain stable working relations with China, an increasingly powerful strategic rival but also a vital economic partner as the world's second-largest economy.
Most recently the Obama administration has been working with Beijing to forge a landmark global climate agreement that was sealed on Saturday.
Al Jazeera with wire services