President-elect Donald Trump has taken a fresh swipe at China just two days after a controversial phone call with Taiwan’s president that upended decades of diplomatic protocol.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
Of all of the United States’ security partnerships around the world, the one with Taiwan is surely unique. Washington does not recognize or have diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) government in Taipei, but instead recognizes the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing. Washington has an embassy in Beijing and conducts its ties with Taiwan through a nominally private organization, the American Institute in Taiwan. This makes Taiwan a rare case where Washington has a security partnership with an entity with which it does not have diplomatic relations.
Imagine that in 2020, China learns that the United States will soon deliver an unusually large and comprehensive arms package to Taiwan. Determined to continue growing its military advantage – and therefore its leverage – vis-à-vis Taiwan, China declares a red line against the delivery, threatening severe consequences if the United States proceeds. That announcement ignites a standoff in the Taiwan Strait. Each side mobilizes its forces and prepares for the possibility of armed conflict.
This hypothetical scenario captures one of the most likely crises that could break out between China and the United States in the coming years. Because Sino-American relations may come to define the international landscape of the 21st Century, it is essential to anticipate and, if possible, avert exactly this sort of flare-up, which could divert that critical relationship down the wrong path. Fortunately, this particular danger is largely preventable through subtle changes in policy that require no major sacrifices to the American national interest.
The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 (H.R. 1735) was passed in the House and the Senate on June 18, and now awaits approval of Senate-made changes. The most recent version of the bill includes several provisions and clauses that express support for greater U.S.-Taiwan military cooperation in the interest of maintaining security, expanding prosperity, and supporting common values.
Taiwan is one of several countries in the Asia-Pacific that will receive assistance in maintaining peace and security under the bill’s South China Sea Initiative. The initiative will cost the Department of Defense $50 million in operational and maintenance expenses in 2016, an amount that will increase to $75 million in 2017 before settling at $100 million from 2018 through 2020.
The bill also supports Taiwan’s participation in joint military training activities to maintain “resolute defense and credible deterrence” in the face of China’s military modernization and aggressive posturing. U.S.-Taiwan defense relations have taken a backseat to U.S.-China relations during the current administration, with infrequent talks and oft-neglected arms-sales requests. This provision and the related proposal for the creation of a U.S.-Taiwan military exchange program would reaffirm the U.S. commitment to enabling Taiwan’s self-defense under the Taiwan Relations Act.
The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the United States has expressed the government’s appreciation of Congressional efforts to “strengthen bilateral relations and security cooperation with Taiwan.”
“Bilateral relations between Taiwan and the United States always involve multi-faceted engagement at various levels. Our two sides have been maintaining smooth communications … The bill, when implemented, will be helpful in further enhancing the effectiveness of ROC military training and strengthening its self-defense capability, thus conducive to safeguarding regional peace and stability.”
An earlier House version of the bill, which was removed by the Senate, included an amendment calling for Taiwan to be invited to the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific exercises in the event that China is again invited to participate.
China’s participation in the 2014 RIMPAC exercise as an observer was marked with controversy and distrust. Some speculate that the proposal to invite Taiwan to the next RIMPAC was more of a strategic move to stop the Pentagon from inviting China, as some members of the House have said they oppose Beijing’s participation. China continues to maintain its resolute opposition to Taiwan developing independent military relations with foreign nations.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said that a final version of the NDAA may be available as early as July.
Claire Chu is pursuing a BA at American University’s School of Int’l Service, with a focus on Asia-Pacific security. She is an intern for the U.S.-China Program at the Center for the National Interest.
US bills for federate defense strengthening military talk with Taiwan 美國國會授權慾提升與台灣軍事交流
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