Home » China, U.S. Policy

The Taiwan Arms Sale

Despite How It Looks, Everyone Wins–Even China
2 February 2010

by Daniel Michaeli

As usual, the Chinese government is wildly overreacting to the most recent U.S. sales of arms to Taiwan, this time threatening sanctions against involved U.S. companies. (Even though such sanctions would hurt China more than anyone else.) Today’s China Daily editorial claimed “China’s response, no matter how vehement, is justified.” But both China’s government and the Western media are missing the ways that the U.S. security relationship with Taiwan benefits all of the parties involved, including China.

Despite the arguments of some (see, for instance, Kevin Slaten’s op-ed at RealClearWorld), selling arms to Taiwan in regular intervals is one of the best ways to maintain support in Taiwan for continued engagement with the mainland. As Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, said last month, it “gives Taiwan more confidence as it works towards peaceful relations with China.” These arms sales do not substantially affect the balance of power between China and Taiwan. But they do provide Taiwan with reassurance of the American commitment to Taiwan’s defense, a commitment that makes China-Taiwan engagement possible.

China gains from this because it is interested in fostering closer ties with Taiwan for political reasons; Taiwan’s interests are economic. Without more cross-strait cooperation, Taiwan risks being marginalized in world trade and left behind on regional free trade agreements.

China-Taiwan relations blossomed after George W. Bush’s major arms sale in October 2008. That sale reassured the people of Taiwan that becoming closer to China would not mean allowing China to steamroll over Taiwan politically. The subsequent year brought major advances in the relationship between China and Taiwan, including the tripling off cross-strait flights, the first exchange of direct messages between China’s president and Taiwan’s president in 60 years, and several rounds of talks on an economic cooperation framework agreement.

For the United States, continuing to uphold commitments to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act reassures not just Taiwan but also Japan and Korea. The message sent is that recent U.S. deference to China does not mean that the U.S. is any less devoted to sticking to its security commitments in East Asia. This message allows Japan and Korea to engage with China without fearing for their security–something clearly in the interests of China as well as our allies.

It is too bad that Chinese sensitivities about national unity blind the Chinese government to these realities. Our Chinese friends should think twice about whether an isolated, defenseless Taiwan is really likely to be willing to partner with China. What are China’s objections to isolating Iran, again?

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5 Comments »

  • Kevin Slaten said:

    I appreciate your perspective, Dan. Though it may surprise you, I may even agree. I do not think that our views are necessarily irreconcilable. You seemed to have misunderstood my argument. I was focusing specifically on the timing of the deal, not the security balance.

    Arms to Taiwan changes little in the regional balance of power, as you know. But I still think that it was a risk by Ma Ying-jeou to go through with this now. Or perhaps you could say that it was inconsiderate of Obama to force Ma to deal with this right now. Over simplified, my argument is: 1) ink the ECFA, then 2) sell the arms, if need be.

    Even from a domestic political view, the current order of events is no good. Ma might get a boost from the arms now, but then he’ll get railed for the ECFA. For the sake of his parties electoral outcomes, he might have been wiser to reverse the order, thus getting a positive bump going into next year’s elections.

  • Daniel Michaeli (author) said:

    Kevin, I don’t think Ma took as much of a risk as you might think. It is true that he had no way of being certain of how the Chinese would respond. But to the extent that the Chinese government would still far prefer to see the KMT in power, I don’t think the ECFA was ever really too much at risk. Also, as one could have predicted (based on lessons learned from the mid-1990s), China is now much more careful about trying to influence events in Taiwan by flexing its muscles–another reason China is continuing to negotiate the ECFA regardless of the arms sale.

    On domestic opinion in Taiwan, I have a few quick points. 1) Providing for Taiwan’s security is a politically savvy move, and one more likely to bring electoral gains than a longer-term economic agreement with China. 2) The public will support the China-Taiwan Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement only if it is assured of Taiwan’s security; reassuring Taiwan first makes it easier to rally support for ECFA in the Legislative Yuan and harder for the DPP to argue that ECFA is harming Taiwan’s security. 3) The DPP will run against ECFA regardless of its progress, because many in Taiwan are worried about what the agreement will mean. Why would Ma give the DPP another advantage on security, too?

  • Kevin Slaten said:

    Hey Dan,

    On your Taiwan politics points:

    1 re: I agree that it is politically advantageous to demonstrate the priority of security, but this still ignores the fact that the ECFA could have been inked first. The ECFA doesn’t disclude the arms.

    2 re: Just over half of the public already supports the ECFA. There was little need for the arms to bolster this. Moreover, Ma doesn’t need to have anything passed, technically, by the LY. If he wants to show administrative competence, then he will update them frequently, as he’s been doing. But there will be no vote of the ECFA. (Despite DPP calls for the vote.)

    3 re: Agreed. But I’m not talking about DPP support. I’m talking about support of those people who roll from DPP to KMT — the “independents”. Come next election, wouldn’t the KMT want “Ma is tough on security” fresh on their minds rather than “Ma is intertwining us with the Mainland”?

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