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The Implications of Improved Cross-Strait Relations for US Arms Sale to Taiwan

Dec 02 , 2013
  • Zhou Bo

    Honorary Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Science

Cross-strait relations between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan are warmer than ever. Nineteen agreements, such as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and the Cross-Strait Agreement on Joint Crime-fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance, have been concluded in the last five years. The establishment of representative offices is being negotiated on both sides. When Zhang Zhijun, Director of the Taiwanese Affairs Office in Beijing, and Wang Yu-chi, Minister of Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei met in Bali on Oct 6, 2013, they addressed each other by their official titles. Such a move is marking a new milestone in cross-strait engagement.

Even in the military field, there are signs of warming ties. Interestingly, confidence-building teed off with swings of golf clubs by the retired generals on both sides in a golf competition in 2009. Since then the competition has been institutionalized. In the “Cross-strait Peace Forum” concluded in Shanghai in October, 2013, scholars concluded that “it is appropriate for both sides to consider contacts and exchanges in the military field” and these activities are aimed to “gradually enhance mutual security confidence and create conditions for establishing a Mutual Military Security Confidence Mechanism.” In his interview with the Washington Post on October 25, 2013, Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou described mutual military confidence-building measures as “very sensitive”, but expressed that “when we have a consensus we would not rule out discussing it.”

A real surprise would be a possible Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou meeting. According to a Taiwanese poll in August, 2013, 43.2% of the Taiwanese support a Xi-Ma meeting before Ma Ying-jeou finishes his second tenure in 2016. Since the Taiwanese economy under the Ma administration is at a low ebb and sees no immediate bailout, Ma has stressed his achievements in bringing forward a much-improved cross-strait relationship. Could he make history or even win a Nobel peace prize by meeting with President Xi Jinping? What if the public support reaches 60-70%? Although Ma talked to the Washington Post about three conditions for his attendance, i.e., “the need of Taiwan”, “the support of the people” and “the atmosphere of equality and dignity”, again, he didn’t rule out such a possibility.
Where does all of this lead? And how would the U.S. look at this? In the Sunnylands Summit, President Obama expressed that his administration strongly has supported the improvement of cross-strait ties in the last few years, but he also reiterated, like all his predecessors that his administration would maintain its “One China” principle based on the U.S.’ three communiqués with China and the Taiwan Relations Act.

This demonstrates that the U.S. will continue to have a “balanced” approach on the Taiwan issue and the U.S. would continue to sell arms to Taiwan. But Obama most probably won’t sell arms anymore during his tenure. One reason is that he has already “outperformed” his predecessors with two deals totaling $12.244 billion from 2010 to 2011. He could wash hands and simply leave the issue to his successors.

The second and more important reason is that China and the U.S. have pledged to avoid the “Thucydides’ Trap” that has plagued all the rising and existing powers with wars, and to establish a “new major power relationship” between China and the U.S. Such a sentiment has to be backed up with tangible results. Without the thorny issue of arms sales, efforts from both sides may almost certainly yield many positive results before the end of his term. It makes no sense for President Obama to overlook these achievements.

Arms sales won’t secure Taiwan and both the U.S. government and the Taiwanese authorities know that. No arms procurement from the U.S. or any other countries can bridge the ever-widening gap of military strength between the mainland and Taiwan. According to Taiwan’s “2013 National Defense Report,” it even said that the Chinese mainland would be able to take Taiwan by force before the end of 2020.

The stakes are too high. China is the second largest economy in the world and it is widely believed that it will overtake the U.S. in GDP in the foreseeable future. In many people’s eyes, China is America’s biggest banker, owning $1.268 trillion in U.S. debt as of August 2013. China’s cooperation on a wide range of international issues is also needed. Since U.S. arms sale to Taiwan is regarded by the mainland as a violation of her vital national interests and the biggest problem between the two countries, the political costs of challenging such a giant can only be higher in the future. On the other hand, the economic benefit of $12.252 billion of arms sales would be easily dwarfed by the trade volume between PRC and the U.S. In fact an increasing number of people in the U. S. are questioning the rationale of the sales, which only serve to infuriate the Chinese mainland without necessarily guaranteeing Taiwan’s security.

The security of Taiwan lies in good cross-strait relations. As a result of the Taiwanese “One China” policy in 1992 and an extension of good will of the mainland towards Taiwan, confidence is growing, although not to the extent that Taiwan decides will no longer buy arms from the U.S.

Taiwan still wants to buy arms from the U.S., more for political reasons than because of “threats” from the mainland. Taiwan clearly knows that if it doesn’t declare independence, the mainland will never attack the island. What Taiwan really wishes to buy from the U.S., rather, is “insurance” of support and commitment. The underlying reason is that the Taiwanese are not aiming for reunification.

During Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s September 2013 visit to the United States, he mentioned that the “Taiwan issue is controllable” after he spoke with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington. Such remarks reveal the confidence of the mainland over the issue in the long term. Indeed, so long as the overall strength of the mainland continues to grow and cross-strait relations continue to improve, the day will surely come, probably sooner than expected, when the U.S. and Taiwan have to decide whether such deals are still needed.

The political basis of the U.S. arms sale to Taiwan is decaying. And time is on the mainland’s side .

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with Center of China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science.

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