The United States has agreed to sell $2 billion in weapons to Taiwan, a move that’s consistent with U.S. obligations to the island and yet will still complicate ties with China. While the decision will boost Taiwan’s defense, it’s also an important statement of U.S. commitment at a time when powerful countervailing winds are blowing. The U.S. should remain resolute in its defense of Taiwan, a signal to China and the region that it remains a force for peace and order in Asia.
The U.S. is proposing the sale of $2.2 billion in weapons, among them 108 Abrams tanks, 250 Stinger surface-to-air missiles and related equipment and support such as Hercules armored vehicles and heavy equipment transporters. The State Department says the weapons will help Taiwan “meet current and future regional threats” and enhance its ability to operate with the U.S. and other partners. While the U.S. agreed to sell $500 million in F-16 parts and training earlier this year, this is the first large-scale weapons sale to Taiwan since 2011.
Although the U.S. is obligated under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to help ensure that Taiwan has the means to defend itself, Washington’s final decision when selling weapons is based as much on political considerations as defense needs. It weighs not only Taiwan’s defense capabilities and the cross-strait military balance of power, but the political context in which those sales occur.
China protests every sale. Beijing considers Taiwan a rogue province that must be reunited with the mainland. Anything that allows Taipei to deflect Beijing’s pressure for reunification is considered interference in Chinese domestic affairs. True to form, China lodged a formal protest, expressing “strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition,” and calling it “crude interference” in Chinese internal affairs that harmed “China’s sovereignty and security interests.” The U.S. should “immediately cancel the planned arms sale and stop military relations with Taipei to avoid damaging Sino-U.S. relations and harming peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”
More influential on U.S. thinking was the risk that the deal would derail efforts to forge a trade agreement with China and/or undermine U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempt to enlist Chinese President Xi Jinping in his project to get North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons program. It is to the Trump administration’s credit that it has not linked these issues and continues to treat Taiwan as a U.S. interest rather than a pawn in its relationship with China. If this decision helps “normalize” the arms sales process, that is even better.
Nonetheless, the U.S. must prepare for blowback. Xi has shown increasing impatience with the pace of reunification with Taiwan, long a Chinese “core interest,” and his language has become increasingly bellicose. Chinese anger may increase as Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, departed Thursday for a 12-day tour of Caribbean countries in an attempt to shore up dwindling international support for her government. She is scheduled to make transit stops in the U.S. on each leg of her trip and there is speculation that Tsai will meet U.S. government officials in New York, her likely first stop. (If that stop takes two days, as anticipated, then Chinese ire will increase.)
Taiwan’s foreign ministry applauded the decision, saying that the arms sale “will help greatly to increase our defensive capabilities.” Some critics counter that the Abrams tanks are too heavy for Taiwan’s roads and bridges, and this continues Taipei’s habit of including items on its wish list for symbolism rather than their contribution to the island’s defense. Taiwan, they insist, needs to increase its defense spending to 3 percent of GDP if U.S. sales are to be meaningful. In truth, no amount of arms sales will change the military balance across the Taiwan Strait. Even with U.S. help, Taiwan will remain massively outnumbered and outgunned by China. Moreover, while the military threat is formidable, the real challenge is from the campaign that Beijing is waging to influence Taiwan’s politics. That effort ranges from economic coercion to spreading propaganda and attempting to manipulate social media.
Japan can play a crucial role in countering that program and supporting Taiwan’s democracy. Tokyo promotes Taipei in regional and global forums, and has been building political and social ties among the two societies. Taiwan can be an effective partner in promoting the rule of law and a free and open Indo-Pacific. While defense ties are largely unspoken, the modernization of Japanese defense policy over the last two-plus decades has acknowledged and addressed ways in which Taiwan’s security is tied to that of Japan. Even if ties to China warm, as appears to be occurring, Japan must not let relations with Taiwan be subordinated to relations with Beijing. Tokyo, like Washington, must continue to treat Taiwan as an independent actor and a valuable partner in a stable, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific.