The Future of Arms Sales to Taiwan
By Danielle Foster
The recent decision not to sell F-16s to Taiwan but instead to upgrade its existing fleet brings to light the question of the how the United States should proceed with its arms sales agreement with the Republic of China (ROC, or Taiwan), and what affect this has on America’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC, or China).
The United States is bound to the ROC through the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which states that it is the responsibility of the US to aid Taiwan in its capabilities of self-defense. However, it is also in America’s best interest to maintain friendly ties with China, a growing economic and military power. Chinese officials view Taiwan as a rogue state and views those nations aiding Taiwan as defying them. Since the United States views the administration of the PRC rather than the ROC as the official government of the region, and since China is a key international player, it is important to take their reactions to America’s relationship with Taiwan into consideration.
The Congressional Research Service’s paper China/Taiwan: Evolution of the “One China” Policy outlines past agreements and policies regarding both the PRC and ROC that should be taken into consideration with any decision.
The following is a list of options available to the United States in regards to how to continue with this relationship into the future.
Option 1: Continue to sell Taiwan
Under the provisions of the TRA, America is obliged to provide Taiwan weapons of a defensive character. Therefore any weapons that may be seen as particularly for offense do not fall under this agreement. Whether weapons are strictly offensive or defensive is a difficult thing to define in modern warfare, leaving room for interpretation by the US administration. Under these terms, America could stay true to the TRA in principle but be more selective of the weapons they choose to sell, which could help to appease China.
By continuing to sell arms to Taiwan, according to Doug Bandow, economist and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, America will “enable the island to maintain a military deterrent just as China is building a deterrent to America.” The logic is that if America stopped aiding Taiwan, they would not be able to keep a strong defense against China and therefore America would be unable to maintain a strong presence in the Asian Pacific, allowing China to become more powerful.
While America wants to retain its military presence near China, though, it is also necessary to take into consideration the reaction of the PRC towards arms sales to Taiwan. China historically has not been pleased with such activities and in the past has threatened to take action against the United States for its policy towards Taiwan. When America was discussing the sale of certain weapons to Taiwan at the beginning of 2010, a New York Times article quoted Wang Baoding, the spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington as saying, “We believe this move endangers China’s national security and harms China’s peaceful reunification efforts…It will harm China-U.S. relations and bring about a serious and active impact on bilateral communication and cooperation.”
- Follows the Taiwan Relations Act and any other policies related to China and Taiwan
- In many cases the arms are built in the US (the majority of the F16s are built in Texas) which means that more jobs are created as arms are sold, therefore there would be a boost to the American economy
- America maintains a military presence around China
- China could see the sale of weapons to Taiwan as a threat to their security and take action either against the island or American interests
- Sino-American relations could be damaged
Option 2: Completely stop the sale of weapons to Taiwan
According to the PRC’s “One-China Policy,” Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and the PRC is the sole government over the territory. Consequently, they established that any government wishing to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC therefore “severs or refrains from establishing diplomatic relations with the Taiwan authorities.” According to this, America needs to tread lightly with its interactions with Taiwan since the PRC holds the official government recognized by the US. Although the Taiwan Relations Act opens up the doors for the US to have relations with the ROC similar to the way that it would interact with other nations, it still creates a delicate situation with China.
In order to appease China, a growing competitor and threat, it could be beneficial for America to cut of any formal ties with Taiwan and therefore suspend the TRA. Although this would allow the US to maintain strong ties with China, it would also weaken America’s military presence around China and would likely completely cut off any relations with Taiwan.
- Will create stronger ties with China
- Would take off pressure of making policy decisions that appease both China and Taiwan
- Would have to retract the Taiwan relations Act and end any other relations with the ROC
- Will leave China more powerful; the US will not have as strong of a presence in East Asia and could open it up to Chinese expansion
Option 3: Work with China to create an acceptable compromise
For the US to meet its commitments to Taiwan, a strong consideration could be to work consider alternative options that China might be more tolerant of. The Taipei Times quoted then US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explaining that “if the relationship between China and Taiwan continued to improve and the security-environment for Taiwan changed, then perhaps that would create the conditions for re-examining all of this,” regarding the Taiwan Relations Act.
Even though China has stated that continued arms sales to Taiwan could hurt Sino-American relations, according to the BBC, analysts do not believe that China will cancel economic contracts with the US since this would also affect China. Also, in the past, “the most China has done is react angrily and cancel military exchanges between Washington and Beijing, as well as not allowing US ships to make calls at the Hong Kong port.”
This is a promising solution because while it would allow America to appease China, it would also allow continued relations with Taiwan. This is an important time for Taiwan politically due to the upcoming elections.Ted Carpenter, a senior Cato Institute analyst explains: “U.S. leaders appreciate Ma's more conciliatory strategy for dealing with Beijing. But that approach remains controversial in Taiwan, and Ma is under pressure to show that he is prepared to defend Taiwan's sovereignty against Beijing's efforts to compel the island's eventual political re-unification with the mainland.” The US would like to boost his approval with the public so that they do not vote for a candidate with a more antagonistic view towards China in the next election.
- America would be able to maintain diplomacy with both the PRC and ROC
- The US would get the economic boost of the additional arms sales
- America could maintain a strong presence in the Asian Pacific
- It is unlikely that China will agree to any policy of continuing relations between the US and Taiwan
While the ideal solution would be one that is agreeable to both China and Taiwan, it is unlikely that the US could be so lucky. Wei-Chin Lee, a professor of political studies, explains that, “in the past two decades, US policy has created a delicate balance to serve the needs of various constituencies. Unless dramatic changes warrant a significant policy shift, the current policy equilibrium is likely to be maintained for the foreseeable future.” As outlined in Option 1 above, this is the best way to proceed.
Selling arms to Taiwan not only has the physical advantage of maintaining a strong ally and military presence so close to the PRC, but is also symbolic, as Lee explains: “Congress frequently reminds the administration, arms sales to Taiwan add to US credibility in defending free institutions in the world.” To keep China appeased, the administration can be more discerning as to what are considered offensive weapons versus defensive weapons and limit the amount of weapons it sells to Taiwan.