The Taiwan Arms Sale
Despite How It Looks, Everyone Wins–Even China
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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