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Should U.S. arms sales to Taiwan continue

With the recent signing of an economic cooperation pact between Taiwan and China, cross-strait relations have entered a new era that could eventually make rapprochement a peaceful process.

The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, which is a free-trade agreement in substance if not in name, is aimed at normalizing cross-strait economic relations but could further raise the issue of a possible freeze on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. After all, if Taipei and Beijing are actively working on burying the hatchet, should the United States change its long-standing policy of providing weapons to Taiwan?

Recall that the U.S. government‘s decision to sell more than $6 billion worth of military equipment to Taiwan earlier this year set off furious reprisals from Chinese authorities who summoned the U.S. ambassador and defense attache in China and threatened to punish U.S. companies that make and sell weapons to Taiwan.

Although the proposed arms deal just included two Osprey mine-hunting ships, 60 Black Hawk helicopters, night-vision gear, missiles, machine guns and ammunition, radar equipment and information technology, Beijing had no hesitation in saying that Washington is attempting to keep China divided to promote U.S. strategic interests.

So, why does the United States sell arms to Taiwan after all?

From the outset of the Second World War, Washington acted as a buffer between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party, and entered in an alliance with General Chiang Kai-shek in fighting against the Japanese Imperial Army in the Pacific War.

Following the outbreak of the Korean War, on June 25, 1950, U.S. President Harry S. Truman ordered the Seventh Fleet to take position in the Taiwan Strait and prevent an assault on the island by the People’s Liberation Army.

Yet, the signature of the Shanghai Communique in February 1972 and the Sino-American normalisation of January 1, 1979, had serious impacts on Taiwan‘s security.

In order to soften the blow of the normalization, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relation’s Act on Jan. 26, 1979, and prepared the way for America‘s continuous support, in terms of future arms sales and nongovernmental ties with Taiwan.

The TRA further pushed through the signing of the Aug. 17, 1982, Joint Communique on arms sales to Taiwan that provided for an open-ended American commitment based solely on Taiwan’s defensive needs.

Now, if Taiwan authorities don‘t want to buy arms anymore, the United States cannot force anyone to purchase them. In fact, the Bush administration and now the Obama administration have welcomed the changes that President Ma’s approach has brought to cross-strait relations. In fact, the stabilization of Beijing-Taipei relations is especially benefiting Washington: It has one less problem to worry about and does not need to engage in dual deterrence anymore.

Well, if we examine the impact of the recent developments in the Taiwan Strait from a military perspective, the U.S. cannot afford to cede political and economic influence in the Asia region to China without careful consideration.

The Chinese military has long said that the PLA would accelerate the build-up of its conventional and nuclear arsenal to form a credible deterrent and develop a credible missile force corresponding to the needs of winning a war.

Such military buildup in the Asian-Pacific region should matter to the United States, which has long made weapons available to Taiwan‘s leaders so that they have confidence to go to the negotiating table with China from a position of strength.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou also stressed in April that China has to remove or actually dismantle its more than 1,500 missiles targeting Taiwan as a prerequisite for further talks on a cross-strait peace accord.

According to Randy Shriver, however, the Obama administration appears to be “on the verge of altering an approach to Taiwan and to the Asia-Pacific region as a whole that has served our interests well”.

In an article published in the Washington Times on July 9, the former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia lamented that the Obama administration has gone to great lengths “to deny that a Taiwan arms-sales freeze is in place” and continue “a fiction that the Taiwan has not formerly requested more F-16 fighters”.

Without a doubt, U,S, commitment to Taiwan’s defence is still a core element of Washington‘s policy of “strategic ambiguity” through which the U.S. neither explicitly commits itself to protect Taiwan, nor explicitly rejects such commitment. The TRA is equally ambiguous on whether the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s aid and, in this eventuality, under what conditions it would do so.

To Sino-American scholar Pan Zhongqi, “strategic ambiguity” is designed to introduce uncertainty into Taipei and Beijing‘s decision making so that to prevent them from changing the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.

As economic integration is likely to continue across the Taiwan Strait, if Taiwan has a sense of self confidence in its economic and military sectors, the United States should carefully take into consideration the impact of any further “strategic ambiguity” on its arms sales to Taiwan.

Taiwan needs to enhance its economic competitiveness through the United States, among others, but the island still needs to strengthen its military in order to raise the cost of coercion, ensure some degree of deterrence vis-a-vis China’s PLA and negotiate from a position of strength.

The China Post, July 20