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US Arms Sales to Taiwan: Better to Assess the Costs and Recalculate

Sep 15 , 2011
  • Xu Shiquan

    Vice Chairman, National Society of Taiwan Studies, SIIS

The perennial problem in Sino-U.S. relations- U.S. arms sales to Taiwan- has stolen newspaper headlines again. The U.S. continues to sell arms to Taiwan, and China continues to condemn it and retaliate. Unfortunately, this thorn in the bilateral relationship has remained ever since the “Shanghai Communique” of 1972, when the two countries started on the course of diplomatic normalization. The 1982 “8.17” communiqué dealt specifically with the issue, but it did not settle the dispute. The gap between the two sides was just too vast to bridge at that time. However, confronted with such a reality, each side took a pragmatic approach to find a way to manage the dispute in order to lower the risk. To maintain stability, both sides made concessions.

The U.S., while reiterating that it had no intention of infringing on Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity, and emphasizing its appreciation for China’s endeavor to peacefully settle the Taiwan question, pledged that “it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan; that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China; and that it intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final solution.” China, while insisting on the position that the Taiwan issue is an internal affair of China and that the arms sales issue had to be fully settled, took into account the above-mentioned U.S. pledge and conceded to an incremental resolution of the issue.

If the U.S. had abided by the “8.17” communiqué both in spirit and letter, the two countries could have greatly dampened this flashpoint in their bilateral relations. But unfortunately, on the day the communiqué was signed, the United States laid bare its intention of non-adherence to the document. A statement issued by President Reagan said that the communiqué was completely in accordance with “The Taiwan Relations Act” and that arms sales to Taiwan would proceed according to the TRA. In ensuing years, the U.S. repeatedly violated the communiqué and thus plunged the bilateral relationship time and again into crises.

American arguments for arms sales to Taiwan sound hackneyed to the Chinese: the U.S. is obliged by the TRA to sell arms and services to Taiwan to meet the latter’s defense needs in achieving “military balance” with the mainland; the mainland’s military deployment along the southeastern coast poses a “threat” to Taiwan; and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan give it the confidence it needs to negotiate effectively with the mainland, hence conducive to cross-Strait relations.

Yet the U.S. supplied arms to Taiwan long before the People’s Liberation Army even had missiles and other modern weaponry, and the American military presence in the Taiwan Strait has posed a long-standing threat to the mainland. For the Chinese, U.S. military intervention in the Taiwan issue was one reason why the PLA accelerated its modernization. However, China has repeatedly pledged to settle the Taiwan issue peacefully as long as it is feasible and has emphasized that its military means are not aimed at Taiwanese compatriots but serve as a deterrent against secessionist forces. Without this deterrence, the Taiwan issue cannot be solved peacefully.

But the United States turns a deaf ear to such explanations. As to the argument that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are conducive to dialogue across the Strait, many in China point out that the U.S. sold large quantities of arms to Taiwan during Chen Shuibian’s tenure (2000-2008), but did that induce Chen to talk with the mainland and help improve cross-Strait relations? The answer is a clear-cut no. The arms sales package announced by the Bush administration in 2001 sent extremely wrong signals to both China and Taiwan, and boosted Chen’s secessionist arrogance, which not only created significant tension across the Strait but also seriously affected American security interests in the area and the maintenance of peace and stability. The present rapprochement across the Strait has been possible because the two sides agreed upon two basic principles: the “One China” principle as embodied in the “1992 Consensus”, and opposition to Taiwan independence. American arms sales to Taiwan remain the stumbling block in the way of further improvement of cross-Strait relations.

This war of words between China and the United States will go on and on. But what is more important is to find new ways to alleviate its damage to the bilateral relationship pending a solution. As it is, the U.S. that has violated the “8.17” communiqué, so the U.S. should take the initiative, which would serve its interests in the first place. The world configuration has changed profoundly since the “8.17” communiqué of 1982 and so has the nature of the China-U.S. relationship. The two countries have more and more overlapping interests and shared responsibilities in world affairs. The U.S. should stand on a higher ground when looking at the arms sales issue. Even from a sheer realist point of view, it is in American interests to recalculate the political cost of its Taiwan policy in general and arms sales to Taiwan in particular. The cost of the U.S. Taiwan policy is in inverse proportion to Taiwan’s strategic value, but in direct proportion to that of the mainland. So in its own interests, the United States needs to recalculate the political cost of arms sales to Taiwan. One option for consideration is for the U.S. to render a more positive response to what former President Jiang Zemin proposed at former President Bush’s Crawford ranch in October 2002. No one would deny the fact that there exists a linkage between U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and the PLA’s overall planning of military deployment. Genuine reductions of arm sales to Taiwan would certainly be reciprocated by China and thus diminish the military dimension of the Taiwan issue in China-U.S. relations. This would definitely be a win-win option, although an interim one at that.

Xu Shiquan is vice chairman of the National Society of Taiwan Studies and former president of the Institute of Taiwan Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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