US agonizes over Taiwan arms sales By Micah Springut
United States lawmakers recently inserted a requirement into the 2010 defense
budget for a presidential report on the state of Taiwan's air force. The move
is intended to push the Barack Obama administration to approve a request for 66
F-16 fighter jets that Taiwan says are necessary to replace its fleet of
deteriorating F-5s (the 1970s-era planes were grounded last month after a fifth
crash in five years).
The administration, reluctant to disrupt relations with China, has shelved
Taiwan's request. At stake in this early part of the Obama administration is
not just whether Taiwan will receive F-16s, but how the US will ensure
stability in the Taiwan Strait under a strategic environment that has changed
markedly in the past few years.
The political state of play and military balance across the strait
have both shifted. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's historic rapprochement
with the mainland has committed Taiwan to further integration with the People's
Republic of China (PRC), removed its likeliest casus belli (a move by
Taiwan toward formal independence), and ushered in a period of stability.
At the same time, the PRC's military modernization is overturning the
cross-strait military balance of power faster than many imagined. In the latest
indication of this, a RAND study released this month warns that the People's
Liberation Army (PLA) air force could quickly establish dominance of the skies
before an invasion, even when US forces intervene.
China's growing military strength has paradoxically led some to question
whether the US should continue to fulfill the requirement of the Taiwan
Relations Act and provide Taiwan with a sufficient self-defense capability. No
matter what weapons the US provides, goes the thinking, Taiwan is consigned to
an ever-growing military deficit in relation to the mainland.
A third factor in the new strategic environment is the rapid expansion of
Sino-US relations. As the US increasingly relies on China for help on a range
of global issues, the US is finding it a challenge to balance Taiwan's security
with its expanding interests with the mainland.
Therefore, with Obama's Asia policy team now largely in place, the
administration should undertake a Taiwan policy review in light of the new
political and military dynamics. If the Obama administration thinks that the
improving cross-strait political dynamic eviscerates the need for a strong
defense, or believes that sufficiently arming Taiwan is impossible given the
development of the Chinese military, then it ought to articulate a strategy for
ensuring stability in the strait which China, Taiwan, and the American public
However, if it wishes to live up to the Taiwan Relations Act and improve
Taiwan's ability to deter coercion, the review will propose a renewed
commitment to its defense.
The administration ought to choose this latter course. While growing political
accommodation between Taipei and Beijing is welcome, Taiwan's separate
democratic identity means it is unlikely to voluntarily accept unification with
the mainland within a conceivable time frame. As Beijing coaxes and prods
Taiwan into its orbit, unwarranted hopes for a breakthrough may be sowing the
seeds of disappointment down the road. Military sales, even if not a decisive
answer to Taiwan's growing military disadvantage, do have the effect of
bolstering Taiwan's defense, asserting America's credible commitment to a
peaceful solution in the strait, and providing political support for Ma
Ying-jeou as he engages the mainland.
The United States must also recognize that it can remain committed to Taiwan's
defense. It can carefully manage arms sales policy to reduce Beijing's
opposition. US officials should quietly and forthrightly explain to their
counterparts that arms sales will continue on a regular basis, depending on the
US's evaluation of Taiwan's needs. The US officials should also say that sales
are necessary as long as China's military posture in the strait fails to
reflect political realities; that these sales will not outpace China's growing
capabilities; and as such, they should not disrupt the larger bilateral
When Obama visits Beijing in November, he should explain that if Beijing is
sincere in its commitment to a political solution for the Taiwan issue, then
selling Taiwan a relatively small number of F-16s that are no better than
Beijing's own airframes should not pose a major challenge.
Perhaps more importantly, implementing a new Taiwanese defense strategy could
reduce the need for big-ticket military sales while making Taiwan safer. Taiwan
cannot hope to match Beijing plane for plane or ship for ship, but it can
employ asymmetric capabilities that Beijing would find difficult to counter.
To defend against a bombardment, blockade or invasion, Taiwan could, for
example, harden key military and strategic installations, create redundancies
in infrastructure, stockpile critical supplies, deploy more survivable (ie
hidden and mobile) surface-to-air missile defenses and build a professional
army skilled in mobile short-range warfare. All of which would be more
effective per dollar spent than the purchase of many large weapons systems.
This last recommendation would require that the United States enjoin Taiwan to
make changes in its defense policies. Taiwan must be convinced to reverse the
trend of declining outlays for defense, while building on its recent
Quadrennial Defense Review to incorporate the goals of creating asymmetrical
defense capabilities. The US and Taiwan governments must work together on this
difficult task - and the Taiwan policy review should jump-start this process.
Micah Springut is an Asia expert at the Center for a New American
Security in Washington DC.