By Carlo Munoz and Jeremy Herb - 05/01/12 05:44 PM EDT
On Monday, the Obama administration surprisingly switched gears on its policy regarding sales of U.S. warplanes to Taiwan.
For the first time, administration officials acknowledged that Taiwan's current fighter fleet was inadequate to counter a potential Chinese incursion across the Taiwan Strait.
The policy shift came just days before high-level meetings between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts in Beijing.
However, the administration's shift on Taiwan could prompt Beijing to pull its support for a number of key security initiatives being pursued by the United States.
Consideration of arms sales to Taiwan has “real potential to sour the tenor of the discussions" between U.S. and Chinese officials this week, Chris Johnson, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former senior China analyst at the CIA, said.
Weighing fighter sales to Taiwan can "really can throw a wrench in the ability to move forward” on a number of pressing issues concerning North Korea, Syria and Iran.
China, a key member of the U.N. Security Council, has backed a Syria peace plan proffered by U.S.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan after weeks of intense negotiation.
But Beijing could theoretically pull its support for the plan in protest of any proposed arms sales to Taiwan.
China also continues to hold out on supporting U.S. sanctions against Iran, which are designed to curb the country's continued nuclear work.
China, the biggest consumer of Iranian oil exports, also continues to exchange key technologies with Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.
Beijing's relations with Tehran will almost assuredly grow stronger if the United States does end up supplying fighters to Taiwan.
The possible sale of fighter jets to Taiwan and the reported sheltering of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing are seen as examples of the Obama administration taking a harder line against China's growing influence.
It was also considered a savvy piece of political maneuvering by President Obama, who is looking to counter presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s criticism of the administration's record on China.
But the "straw that broke the camel’s back" and prompted the White House's policy shift on Taiwan might have been recent reports claiming Beijing supplied North Korea with critical weapons technology, said Patrick Cronin, an expert in Asian-Pacific security issues at the Center for a New American Security.
That information was allegedly used by Pyongyang to build new mobile missile launchers, according to Cronin.
But if a U.S-Taiwan deal does become reality, it likely will not happen until after the presidential election in November, says one former DOD senior official.
Even if a deal is struck, the White House will probably forgo any new fighter sales in favor of a new round of upgrades for Taiwan's current F-16 fleet, Frank Cevasco, who spent a decade overseeing DOD's international programs, said Monday.
The Obama administration "may decide to stall as it did before, offering to upgrade Taiwan’s existing F-16s ... and hope China’s new leaders decide against precipitating a new freeze on bilateral relations," Cevasco said.