China has announced sanctions on five defence firms over weapons sales to Taiwan, as Beijing ramps up efforts to disrupt US influence over the island ahead of Taiwan’s elections on 13 January.

Weapons sales from Washington to Taipei are a frequent source of tension between the US and China, which views self-governed Taiwan as its own territory.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement warned the US to “stop arming Taiwan and stop targeting China with illegal unilateral sanctions”, an unequivocal escalation of the US-China trade war.

It also claimed US weapons sales were in “blatant violation of the one-China principle”.

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By GlobalData

The five companies named were BAE Systems Land and Armament, Alliant Techsystems Operation, AeroVironment, ViaSat and Data Link Solutions.

“A choice between peace or war”

These latest sanctions, which follow the US State Department’s approval of a $300m sale for tactical information equipment to Taiwan in December, aim to bolster China’s Taiwan reunification strategy.

Announced less than a week before Taiwan’s upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, the timing of China’s sanctions is “absolutely significant”, according to Wilson Jones, Defence Analyst at GlobalData.

“Observers in Taiwan, China and the rest of the world see this election as essential, as the winner will significantly affect cross-strait politics,” Jones told Army Technology.

Military drills have become increasingly commonplace across the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea in the past few months.

With former President Ma Ying-jeou describing the upcoming elections as a “choice between peace or war”, Chinese reunification is the leading issue for many Taiwanese voters heading to the polls this weekend.

Party politics

Ying-jeou was leader of the centre-right Kuomintang (KMT) party which ruled Taiwan as a dictatorial one-party state until the 1990s and negotiated the one-China policy.

Meanwhile, the incumbent centre-left Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has rejected the one-China principle throughout President Tsai Ing-wen’s eight-year rule.

Ing-wen remained relatively moderate on the China question, but will not stand in the 2024 elections, having completed her second term.  

While the KMT and DPP are the two largest parties, the newly formed Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) will also appear on the ballot.  

“The DPP promotes Taiwan’s distinct identity from China, but has a mixed position on independence, with some members fully calling for it and some opposing”, Jones added. “The TPP, which wants to break this two-party system, strongly favours independence”.

Whether the current economic warfare being waged by the US and China escalates in the aftermath of Taiwan’s elections remains to be seen.

Strong words have been exchanged in recent weeks. Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated his belief that Taiwan will “surely be reunified” with China in his annual New Year’s Eve address.

Three days later, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu claimed it is an “established fact that Taiwan is a test ground for China’s ambitions to exert its malign influence abroad” in a column for The Economist.

All eyes now turn to Taiwan. Saturday’s elections may involve a population of just 23.5 million people, but the outsized ramifications look set to make waves from the South China Sea across the Pacific.