The United States has approved the sale of an arms package to Taiwan, a move that has outraged the government in China. Although Washington did not agree to provide the items that top Taipei’s wish list, that has not mollified Beijing.
As always, the Chinese have complained that the decision constitutes interference in the domestic affairs of their nation and have warned that U.S.-China relations will suffer in turn.
If Beijing wants an end to the arms sale, it should quit giving Taipei reasons to want those weapons. The United States sells arms because Taiwan feels threatened.
While the U.S., like Japan, no longer formally recognizes Taiwan as a nation, it continues to sell arms to the Taipei government to ensure that it has the capacity to defend itself. That is a legal obligation enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act, which was promulgated and passed by the U.S. Congress in the aftermath of the U.S. decision to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
The TRA, as the bill is known, has infuriated Beijing, which insists that Taiwan is a renegade province and argues that the arms sales encourage “splittists” in Taiwan.
Moreover, the Chinese argue that the continuation of American weapons sales to Taiwan violate commitments made in the Shanghai Communique of 1982, in which the U.S. promised to decrease and ultimately end those deals. A slightly more sophisticated — but more chilling — argument is that the U.S. relationship with China is more important than its relationship with Taiwan and, therefore, the U.S. should bend to Chinese wishes for the greater good.
The U.S. counters that its commitment to Taiwan is based on legal and moral interests. The TRA obliges Washington to help Taiwan meet its defense needs. As long as Taipei feels threatened, the U.S. is there to help.
The moral dimension is simple: Taiwan is a democracy and its future should be determined by its citizens, not the hulking giant next door. Washington also argues that relations with Taiwan are an indication of its commitment to the region more generally; if the U.S. were to turn its back on Taiwan, it would send a chilling signal to other U.S. allies and partners about U.S. credibility more generally. There can be no indication that the U.S. is prepared to sacrifice its partners to keep China happy.
The arms procurement process is not simple. First, Taiwan submits a request — which the U.S. must formally accept. (In the past, the U.S. has put off the anticipated tempest by refusing to accept Taiwan’s shopping list.) The U.S. then produces its own assessment of Taiwanese defense needs and determines which of the items of the list it is prepared to sell. That list is then provided to Congress, which must approve the sales. Taiwan then purchases the products.
Last week the U.S. administration announced the items it was ready to sell. Topping the list of the $5.85 billion package are kits (advanced avionics equipment mostly, but some weapons and training are included as well) that will upgrade Taiwan’s fleet of aging F-16 fighters, along with spare parts for other aircraft.
In all, the package exceeds $12 billion over two years. Taipei had wanted to purchase 66 new F-16 C/D fighters, which are newer and more sophisticated machines. The U.S. was not prepared to provide that equipment, although it has pointedly said that it made no decision on the more advanced fighters, meaning that it could revisit the issue if the need should arise.
China reacted with the anticipated anger, summoning the U.S. ambassador to warn that relations between the two countries could suffer. It is possible that Beijing will cut off military-to-military engagements with the U.S. in response, a favorite target for retribution when its leaders are angry.
But the Chinese reaction is likely to be limited for two reasons. First, Vice President Xi Jinping, the man widely anticipated to become president next year, is supposed to visit the U.S. later this year and that visit would not be able to take place under a cloud of anger over the arms sale. China cannot afford to play up the wrong done to them and then send their second-highest ranking official for a visit.
The second reason is that the sale likely strengthens the position of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, demonstrating that he, unlike his predecessor, enjoys good relations with the U.S. This should help him in the presidential campaign next year, and China would prefer to see Mr. Ma win a second term, rather than an opposition politician inclined toward independence of Taiwan.
If Beijing is so upset about the Taiwanese arms purchases, then it should do more to lessen the sense of threat that compels the Taipei government to want them.
There are more than 1,100 Chinese missiles targeting Taiwan. Despite Taiwanese complaints, Beijing continues to add to that inventory. China could easily redeploy the missiles so that they pose no threat to Taiwan. Of course, they are mobile missiles, so such a move would be temporary at best. But it would send a signal about Chinese intent and undermine the call for additional weapons in the future.
Cross-strait peace should be built on a genuine sense of peace shared by both parties; not unilateral disarmament by one side.
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