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Foreign Policy

Is it Time to Stop Arms Sales to Taiwan?

Apr 02 , 2013
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Since ancient times, Taiwan has been the territory of China. Oddly enough, Taiwan has always been an obstacle to the stable development of Sino-US relations since the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October of 1949. The peaceful development of relations across the Taiwan Straits since 2008 is helping remove this obstacle. It is high time now for the US to seize the opportunity and make up its mind to stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, stop arms sales to Taiwan and stop overt and covert official contact with Taiwan. 

For the last 34 years, US arms sales to Taiwan have caused considerable troubles between China and the US, making relations stagnate and suffer setbacks. Neither China nor the US strategically benefits from this unstable relationship. 

The Taiwan issue is a remnant of history. For the last 60 years or more, it has been the single most important and most sensitive issue at the heart of Sino-US relations. In a certain sense, the failure to seriously discuss and resolve this issue has contributed to the 22 years of estrangement and hostility experienced between China and the US. When President Nixon made his historic visit to China in 1972, Taiwan had been a central issue in the negotiations for normalization of relations between China and the United States. On January 1, 1979, China and the US established full diplomatic relations when the Carter Administration decided to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan, withdraw American troops and military installations from Taiwan, and to abrogate the treaties it had signed with Taiwan. In a word, resolution of the Taiwan issue was key to normalization. 

On April 10, 1979, President Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act into law. The law directs the Executive Branch to promptly inform Congress of any threat to Taiwan’s security or to the social or economic system of the Taiwanese people, including any danger to the interests of the US. The act states that the US will make available defense articles and services in such a quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability. The Chinese Government resolutely opposed the law, stating that the law contravenes the principles agreed upon by the two sides and constitutes gross interference in China’s internal affairs. Thus, the Taiwan issue remains a key issue obstructing the healthy development of Sino-US relations after normalization. Given the weight the Taiwan issue carries for Sino-US relations, China and the US should urgently act to resolve the Taiwan issue and ensure long-term stability of bilateral relations. 

Now, with peaceful development established in cross-Straits relations, assumed threats to Taiwan are diminishing and there is no apparent danger to US interests. Therefore, the Taiwan Relations Act is now completely out of date. The US has expressed support for the continued expansion of exchanges and cooperation between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits as it is not only in the interests of the people of both sides of the Straits, but also helps maintain peace and stability in the region. 

With the establishment of peace prevailing across the Taiwan Straits, US arms sales to Taiwan have not only become unreasonable but also unnecessary. Taiwan’s needs for weapons are on the decline. The arms sold to Taiwan are used to protect Taiwan’s fishing boats in the Diaoyu Islands’ territorial waters. It would be ridiculous if the US insists on arms sales to Taiwan when the US officially insists on the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. Under the current situation, the US decision to completely terminate arms sales to Taiwan would be a wise choice. 

As China and the US work together to build a new type of major power relationship, based on equality and mutual benefit, continued interference in China’s internal affairs is not helpful at all. Since sustainable peace across the Taiwan Straits has overturned the very foundation of the Taiwan Relations Act, the US is losing its standing to continue arms sales to Taiwan. For the past 34 years, the US has violated the basic principles enshrined in the three joint communiqués between China and the US by selling arms to Taiwan, which has already inflicted severe damage upon Sino-US relations. It is high time for such violations to come to an end, benefitting both China and the United States. 

Stopping interference in China’s internal affairs by terminating US arms sales to and official contact with Taiwan does not mean the US is “giving up Taiwan.” It only means that the US has come to truly abide by the principles and the spirit of the three joint communiqués, greatly helping to enhance US credibility and strengthen mutual political trust between China and the US. At the same time, it is believed that nonofficial contact and exchanges by the US with Taiwan, whether cultural, economic or business, will continue to flourish on a solid basis in the peaceful environment across the Taiwan Straits. 

Wu Zurong is a research fellow at the China Foundation for International Studies in Beijing.

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