The US Is Selling Weapons to Taiwan — That's Going to Really Piss Off Beijing

There aren't really any good times for the US to sell high-tech weapons, only less bad times. And one of those times happens to be right now.
December 24, 2015, 5:40pm
Photo by David Chang/EPA

Last week, the White House officially notified Congress of a wide-ranging arms deal with Taiwan, worth $1.83 billion. China reacted by summoning a US envoy over the matter and threatening sanctions on some of the American companies involved, saying Beijing "resolutely opposes" any arms sale to the island they consider an integral piece of Chinese territory — albeit one in a state of insurrection for more than 60 years.

The governments in Taipei and Beijing have been locked in a competing claim of legitimacy over the sovereignty of China since 1949, when the government of the Republic of China fled the mainland amid the advance of Communist forces. Thirty years later, the US chose to recognize the People's Republic of China that resulted from the Communists' victory, and consequently maintains a solely informal diplomatic relationship with Taipei.

In spite of that fact, the US also regularly sells American defense equipment to Taiwan, often for even more money than this most recent deal. In fact, despite China's sharp criticisms, these arms sales are a key element of US posture regarding Taiwan and its relationship to China. Rather than a contradiction of Washington's recognition of the mainland's One-China policy, these arms sales are a centerpiece of American engagement with Taiwan because of their role in keeping an odd, asymmetric peace across the Formosa Strait.

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Taiwan's military powers are dwarfed by those of the People's Liberation Army, but by boosting Taiwan's defensive capabilities, the US helps prevent any possible aggression from Beijing. The Taiwan Relations Act, which outlines America's Taiwan policy in the absence of a diplomatic relationship, states that US policy is to provide arms of "a defensive nature" to Taiwan, and "any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means" is against American economic, political, and security interests in the region.

"The purpose here is to bolster Taiwan's armed forces so that Beijing would think twice about ever using force or coercion against Taiwan," says Richard Bush, the director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings think tank. In this view, arms sales are, somewhat counterintuitively, necessary to continue on a peaceful course.

The deal is not unexpected. Not only is the US historically committed to providing Taiwan with the means of defense and deterrence, but four years have passed since the last package deal, and Congress approved the possible sale of frigates to Taiwan a year ago. Taipei has been vocally expressing its concerns over China's ongoing efforts at military modernization, especially the Su-35 fighter jet program and long-range surface-to-air missiles, and has expanded its own military wish list accordingly.

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The contents of the deal are defensive in nature and, in relative terms, not inflammatory. Though any sale to Taiwan is controversial to Beijing on principle, more contentious weapons were not part of this deal. The sale will include more than 750 TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) anti-anti-tank missiles, three dozen amphibious assault vehicles, a pair of frigates, more than 200 Javelin shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles, Stinger surface-to-air missiles, minesweepers, and more.

"This arms sale package, compared to any arms sale package in the last 20 years or more, is relatively easier for the Chinese to digest politically," said Robert Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College and fellow at Harvard's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. "The Chinese are most concerned about what we would call high-tech expensive platforms such as F-16 aircraft, Patriot-3 missile systems, potentially submarines. None of these were in this package."

China is still not pleased about the sale. It "naturally objects, on principle, to any arms sales by anybody, and especially by the United States, to Taiwan, seeing that as interference in China's internal affairs," said Alan Romberg, director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center. The response is likely to be a matter of rhetoric, and there is little China can realistically do to challenge Washington's choices in the matter. Even though this is a low point in US-China relations, particularly given US challenges to China's island-building expansionism in the South China Sea, the deal seems unlikely to be of lasting consequence to the relationship.

"I think that China's objections to US arms sales to Taiwan are more about the United States than they are about Taiwan," Romberg said. "I think that China takes those sales as an indication, at least in some measure, of American attitudes toward cross-strait relations and toward China. And it is certainly less concerned about the impact of such sales on Taiwan's ability to match China… in any serious military way."

The choice to put the deal through now, rather than in 2016, is not coincidental. "The tactical timing" for the deal is "significant," Ross said. Taiwan is holding elections in January, and the current opposition looks likely to win.

Analysts suggest that the White House is choosing to do the arms sale now because it wants to avoid putting the arms sale through under current frontrunner and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen's leadership.

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Cross-strait relations have been smoother since the 2008 election of President Ma Ying-Jeou, who resumed cross-strait dialogue and lowered tensions. This November, Ma met with President Xi Jinping in the first meeting of Chinese and Taiwanese leadership since the 1949 split.

The perception and fear is that Tsai and the DPP are "less interested in cooperation with the mainland… and all sides are concerned that [Tsai] may not maintain the status quo in cross-strait relations and in diplomatic agreements regarding Taiwan's status as part of China," Ross said. "The administration doesn't want to do an arms sale after she comes in… An American vote of confidence in her leadership might embolden her to challenge the mainland."

That is certainly what the ruling Kuomintang party is campaigning on; accusing the DPP of being in favor of actual, legal independence and endangering the status quo. While Taiwanese citizens prefer independence over unification with the mainland, the majority would rather have option three: preservation of the status quo. Tsai has publicly sworn her commitment to cross-strait relations, but has also discussed strengthening Taiwan's regional relationships, especially with Japan, and reducing reliance on mainland China. Beijing sees these foreign policy positions as provocation and as steps toward a more independence-minded and uncooperative Taipei.

However, as Bush points out, "There's no good time to do an arms sale to Taiwan. You just have to pick the least bad time."

Follow Torie Rose DeGhett on Twitter: @trdeghett

Photo via Wikimedia Commons