Myths and US arms sales to Taiwan
By Bonnie S Glaser
In recent weeks Chinese newspapers and television interview shows have been
replete with condemnations of the US$6.4 billion package of arms sales to
Taiwan by the Barack Obama administration. Chinese scholars and pundits have
attributed numerous motivations to the United States for this sale, most of
which are inaccurate. Understanding the reasons for the US sale of weapons to
Taiwan may not diminish China's opposition to them, but it is nevertheless
important for assessing the broader US-China relationship and predicting future
US policy decisions.
Myth number 1: The United States opposes the warming trend in
cross-strait relations and is seeking to inject new tensions between Taiwan and
mainland China by selling arms to Taipei.
US officials have repeatedly stated support for the improvement in cross-Strait
relations. The easing of tensions between Taiwan and mainland China reduces the
risk of a military conflict between
them in which the United States would likely become involved.
In an appearance before the press along with Chinese President Hu Jintao last
November, President Obama stated that the US "applauded the steps that the
People's Republic of China and Taiwan have already taken to relax tensions and
build ties across the Taiwan Strait. Our own policy, based on the three
US-China communiqu้s and the Taiwan Relations Act, supports the further
development of these ties - ties that are in the interest of both sides, as
well as the broader region and the United States."
Long-standing US policy encourages the peaceful resolution of differences
between the two sides of the strait.
Myth number 2: The United States views Taiwan as its most
effective political tool for containing China's development.
Taiwan is not a card that the United States plays against China. The US has an
important relationship with Taipei that in many respects is separate from its
relations with Beijing. More importantly, the United States does not seek to
contain China's development.
Containment was a strategy that the US pursued against the former Soviet Union
and China many decades ago when its highest foreign policy priority was to stop
the spread of communism. Today, containing China's re-emergence as a great
power would be impossible to achieve if the US attempted it, in part because no
other country would join in the effort. Moreover, decades ago the US
consciously rejected a containment strategy against China, having concluded
that such a strategy would not serve US interests. Rather, the US opted for a
strategy of engaging China to influence and shape its policies and behavior.
The United States has a robust trade and economic relationship with China and
strongly backed China's bid to join the World Trade Organization. The US also
conducts exchanges with China's military and seeks to expand those ties.
There are robust links between the US and Chinese people, including cultural
exchanges and students studying in each other's country. Recent US presidents,
including President Obama, have voiced support for a strong and prosperous
Myth number 3: The Obama administration is dissatisfied with the
overall development of China-US relations in the past year.
Beijing and Washington worked closely in the past year to break the past
pattern of bilateral relations experiencing friction at the outset of a new US
administration. In their first bilateral meeting, Chinese and US leaders agreed
to pursue a "positive, cooperative and comprehensive" relationship; the two
countries held a successful first round of a newly established Strategic and
Economic Dialogue; and President Obama's November visit to China produced a
joint statement that highlights both countries' commitments to the bilateral
relationship and underscores the depth and breath of those ties.
The two countries have also worked together to encourage North Korea to return
to the six-party talks on its nuclear program. In addition, the agreement
reached at the meeting on climate change in Copenhagen was due in no small part
to US and Chinese collaboration. US and Chinese interests do not converge on
every issue, but where there is overlap, cooperation has been successful. The
Obama administration hopes to continue to work with China on a rich agenda of
bilateral, regional and global issues. Selling arms to Taiwan was not intended
to punish Beijing for its failure to respond to US requests to modify specific
Myth number 4: Obama's support rate has dropped and selling arms
to Taiwan will shore up his domestic political base and win support from the
military industrial complex and labor unions.
The timing of this weapons sale to Taiwan had little to do with US domestic
politics. President Obama's political problems are mostly related to domestic
issues or US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, not China or Taiwan.
The president is unlikely to gain any ground by selling arms to Taiwan. Due to
China's opposition to US arms sales to Taiwan, there is never a "good" time to
approve a weapons sale to Taiwan. In fact, the US made this arms sale decision
at a time that it hoped would minimize Chinese reaction. The Obama
administration decided to not approve any new weapons sales in the months
leading up to the president's trip to China. After his return, a reasonable
interval was allowed to pass before the notifications were sent to Congress.
Regardless of President Obama's support rate, this arms package would have
proceeded. China overestimates the influence of the military industrial complex
on US decision-making vis-a-vis Taiwan.
Myth number 5: In geostrategic terms, the United States views
Taiwan as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" and treats Taiwan as an important
strategic anchor located near the Chinese mainland in the Pacific Ocean that
will help enhance its influence in the Pacific region.
Taiwan's geostrategic importance to the United States is marginal. The US has
no plans to use Taiwan as a base for conducting military operations against the
mainland in the event of a cross-strait war. US strategic influence in the
Pacific region is promoted through a wide variety of means, including its
alliances and partnerships with many regional nations. Taiwan does not figure
in this network of relationships.
If the above explanations do not correctly elucidate the reasons for the US
weapons sale to Taiwan, then how should this decision be understood? What were
US intentions and objectives in selling these weapons at this particular
First, although the threat of Taiwan independence has receded since Ma
Ying-jeou became the island's president in May 2008, China has continued its
relentless military buildup opposite Taiwan. A notable component of that
buildup is the deployment of short-range ballistic missiles and cruise
missiles, which President Ma has repeatedly stated pose an obstacle to the
negotiation of a cross-strait peace accord. The sale of weapons to Taiwan can
no longer sustain a military balance between the two sides of the strait. But
they can prevent the imbalance from tilting excessively in China's favor, which
could tempt Beijing to employ coercive means to compel the people of Taiwan to
agree to an outcome that they do not support. In this regard, US arms sales to
Taiwan are part of a broader US policy designed to ensure that differences
between the two sides of the strait are resolved peacefully and in a manner
that is acceptable to the people of Taiwan and does not hurt their interests.
Second, US national law in the form of the Taiwan Relations Act, along with the
strategic interests of the United States, requires provision of defensive
capabilities to Taiwan as well as the maintenance of capabilities by the US in
the Western Pacific to deal with any challenges to peace and stability across
the Taiwan Strait. As a US official stated on background in announcing this
arms sale decision, "we take that responsibility very seriously".
Third, US weapons are not foisted on Taiwan by greedy arms manufacturers; they
are sold in response to requests made by Taiwan, which are based on the
assessment of the island's security needs by its civilian and military leaders.
That assessment in turn is based on the threats that Taiwan faces. If US
defense companies had as much clout as many Chinese believe, the F-16 C/D
fighter jets that Taiwan under both President Ma and President Chen Shui-bian
have said are a high priority for its defense would have been approved long
ago. The recent package of notifications to Congress in fact only responded to
a portion of Taiwan's requests. In addition to excluding the advanced fighters,
it did not include submarines, which were approved for sale by President George
W Bush in 2001.
Fourth, the US believes that provision of defensive arms to Taiwan at this time
is necessary to provide the Taiwan leadership with a signal that the United
States remains a critical backer of Taiwan's security, which will boost
Taipei's confidence and willingness to sustain negotiations with Mainland
counterparts. This is vitally important as Taiwan weighs whether to embark upon
discussions with Beijing on sensitive political and military issues. A Taiwan
government that feels insecure and vulnerable to pressure from China is more
likely to halt cross-strait dialogue than accommodate to Beijing. Ma Ying-jeou
himself told the Wall Street Journal that "The relaxed tensions across the
strait depend very much on the continued supply of arms from the United
Finally, the decision to sell arms to Taiwan sends a message to the rest of the
region that the United States stands by its commitments and that others that
depend on Washington for the maintenance of peace and stability can be
reassured that US support is reliable and unwavering.
The Obama administration continues to attach great importance to relations with
China and looks forward to further cooperation in areas where American and
Chinese interests coincide. The challenges of achieving a sustainable economic
recovery, combating global warming, preventing further proliferation of weapons
of mass destruction and fighting terrorism all require closer coordination
between Washington and Beijing. On areas where the two countries disagree,
including Taiwan, more dialogue, understanding and patience are needed.
Bonnie S Glaser (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow in the
Freeman Chair for China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies in Washington DC.