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China Strives to Remove Tinderbox of Arms Sales to Taiwan

Sep 13 , 2013
  • Xu Shiquan

    Vice Chairman, National Society of Taiwan Studies, SIIS

During his late August visit to the United States, the Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan was reported to have proposed to his counterpart Secretary Chuck Hagel that if the United State halted its arms sales to Taiwan, China would consider readjusting it military deployment. The reports also suggested that the Pentagon side did not respond directly to the proposal but welcomed positively Minister Chang’s initiative to set up “working groups” to explore the arms sales issue among other pressing disputes between the two militaries.

Xu Shiquan

It is absolutely unrealistic to expect that the United State would abruptly suspend its arms sales to Taiwan, not now, nor in the near future. Minister Chang is certainly fully aware of that. But if the two defense chiefs did agree to build “a sustained, substantive military to military relationship” to bolster ties between the world’s two biggest economies, as Secretary Hagel said after their meeting, then the United States could not afford simply brushing aside the arms sales issue. This perhaps could vindicate why Hagel adopted a sort of bifurcated approach towards Chang’s proposal. On the one hand, he did not respond directly to the proposal; on the other, he welcomed the idea of setting up “working groups” to study, among other things, the arms sales issue.  One should apprehend Minister Chang’s proposal and Secretary Hagel’s stance against a broader strategic backdrop that reflects the complex relationship between China and the United States today.

On the part of China, Minister Chang’s proposal represents her consistent resolve to remove the tinderbox of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in the bilateral relationship realistically and rationally. One could recall that as far back as in October of 2002 when the former Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited the United States and was hosted by President Bush at his Crawford ranch, a similar proposal was made by President Jiang. This author learned from reliable American sources that President Bush did not directly respond to the proposal at the meeting, but afterwards, gave the Chinese side a written note which said that the proposal was “potentially constructive” and hoped that Beijing would raise it directly with Taiwan. And in the following years, the author has been assured privately by a number of American diplomats and officials that the United States “still keep the door open” to President Jiang’s proposal. So it is perhaps safe to say that Secretary Hagel’s seemingly contradictory approach toward Minister Chang’s proposal is in fact the standing position of the United States.

Minister Chang’s promise to readjust China’s military deployment should also be dissected from a more profound perspective. It is common knowledge that if a conflict erupted in the Taiwan Strait, it won’t be one only between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, U.S. intervention is the true meaning of it. Logically, China’s operational planning against such an eventuality should not be limited to the alleged deployment of missiles along her south-eastern coast. Many American analysts speculate that China has been acquiring the ability to block or at least complicate U.S. intervention and deploying a robust “anti-access, area denial (A2/AD)” military strategy to keep U.S. intervention forces at bay. The United States, on her part, “has developed operational concepts like Air-Sea Battle to negate such A2/AD challenges”, one analyst said. Such a scenario, if correctly envisaged, is certainly deleterious to the peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region and indeed the world as a whole. To pull the rug off from under this dangerous spiral is to settle peacefully the Taiwan issue, and the essence of the matter, in the Chinese perspective, is U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. So Minister Chang’s termination of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan versus China’s military redeployment proposal should be accepted as a balanced formula that takes into account of the fundamental interest of all.

Taiwan’s reaction to Minister Chang’s proposal is divided.  One school of thought believes that the United States would never stop arms sales to Taiwan as it is its tool to implement the long-standing strategy of keeping Taiwan and the mainland in a confrontational state of no peace, no war. Presently, U.S. “rebalancing” strategy in Asia is undoubtedly aimed at China and Taiwan is an inevitable part of it. Furthermore, the U.S. is obliged by the Taiwan Relations Act to sell arms and services to Taiwan and one of the “six assurances” given by President Reagan to Taiwan in the wake of the signing of the Sino-American “8.17” communiqué promised not to talk with the mainland over arms sales to Taiwan. The other school of thought calls for vigilance, arguing that at the end of the day, U.S. policy towards Taiwan is decided solely by American needs and interest. A “card” in her hand might become redundant when she needs to strike deals with Beijing. Taiwan had such bitter experiences in the past, hence it is better to “prepare for the rainy days while the sky is still clear”.

As discussed above, Minister Chang’s proposal is definitely not an expedient “diplomatic maneuver”; it represents China’s constant endeavor to peacefully settle the Taiwan issue, even if it would, as the first step, be a modus vivendi. It would not only serve the interest of the people across the Strait, but also remove the stumbling block in establishing a cooperative partnership between China and the United States. For Taiwan, her security and prosperity depends on the sound relationship with the mainland. The two sides constitute an “entity of the same fate”. Outside promises, commitments or even guarantees would one day prove to be sand castles. One should not forget a well-known diplomatic maxim: There is only eternal interest, no eternal friendship. Since 2008 when Mr. Ma Ying-jieu came into office in Taiwan, cross-Strait relationship has entered a new stage of peaceful development and people on both sides are yielding the benefits. The two sides should expel outside interference and keep the momentum of peaceful development going. 

Xu Shiquan is vice chairman of the National Society of Taiwan Studies and honorary director of the Institute of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau Studies of SIIS.

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