Arms Sales to Taiwan: The Annual Dilemma

As spring arrives in Beijing, Taipei and Washington, the weather is not the only thing to heat up. It is also time for the annual dilemma over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. This year’s decision process on arms sales to Taiwan will be particularly tense. There is a new, but still incomplete, foreign policy team coming into place. In addition, the new team appears to be more favorably inclined toward Taiwan, and has shown a somewhat more skeptical view of relations with China. Moreover, the Bush team maintains an overall policy in support of missile defenses, which are precisely the types of weapons transfers to Taiwan which China most vehemently opposes. Taken together, it all adds up to a potential early rift between Washington and Beijing. In any event, the late April decision about arms sales to Taiwan will signal a great deal about how the Bush Administration will handle relations with China, as well as how Washington intends to approach security questions in East Asia overall.

American counterparts last December, they presented a long list of weapon requests. The list included Kidd class destroyers, P-3 Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft, high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARM), diesel submarines, as well as requests to improve the degree of intelligence sharing and military-to-military cooperation between Washington and Taipei to enhance Taiwan’s defense against mainland Chinese attack and coercion.

But the most controversial request is for four Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with the Aegis battle management system, in order to dramatically improve Taiwan’s air defense capability. Beijing has drawn a “red line” on the Aegis sale, saying that the platform could ultimately be outfitted with a highly-capable anti-missile defense system by the time the ships were actually transferred to Taiwan late in this decade. China fears that the sale of the Aegis system, along with an anti-ballistic missile capability, would not only undermine China’s missile threat to the island, but would also signal a significant improvement in U.S.-Taiwan military cooperation overall in the direction of a quasi-alliance.

Because of China’s steady build-up of short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan—now numbering around 250 to 300 according to U.S. intelligence estimates—the Bush Administration must take this threat to Taiwan seriously. Moreover, under U.S. law, as required by the Taiwan Relations Act, the President is obligated to support Taiwan’s defense, in part through the transfer of weapons, to face threats from the Chinese mainland. Hence, the new president is under great domestic pressure to go forward with the Aegis sale in spite of the damage it would likely cause to U.S.-China relations and the likely troublesome reactions of the Chinese.

But there may be a near-term solution to this dilemma. This idea is being considered in many parts of Washington, but it is unclear whether the President and his closest advisors will find it politically possible. The approach would unfold in several phases. First, during the visit to Washington in late March of Chinese Vice Premier and foreign policy eminence Qian Qichen, the Bush Administration must make powerfully clear its opposition to China’s destabilizing build-up of short-range missiles across from Taiwan. In no uncertain terms, Qian Qichen should leave the U.S. capital understanding that China’s missile build-up is forcing the hand of the American leadership to provide missile defenses to Taiwan. The Americans should let Qian know they are carefully monitoring the missile build up, and will proceed with transferring missile defenses to Taiwan if the build-up continues.

Next, when the time comes for the arms transfer decision in late April, the President should note with concern China’s ongoing missile build-up, but make the case that at its current level, it does not yet warrant the transfer of more capable missile defenses to Taiwan. In other words, the U.S. would “contingently defer” the Aegis sale for now. Instead, the Bush Administration should transfer more immediately-needed assistance in the form of anti-submarine warfare and anti-blockade capabilities (such as the P-3 Orion aircraft, the HARMs, and the Kidd class destroyers), while also significantly bolstering assistance to Taiwan in the form of “passive defenses” against missile attack, and improved, but still low-profile, avenues of cooperation between the Taiwan and United States on military matters.

This approach sends a clear signal to China that the United States will continue to lean in favor of providing the necessary defensive equipment to Taiwan, including missile defenses in the future if need be. It would allow some time for China to take steps to slow and halt its missile build-up. It would also allow the U.S. to provide systems where Taiwan really needs them, rather than unnecessarily provoking tensions over missile defenses which, in any event, would not be deployed with Taiwan for another seven to eight years in the future. Perhaps most importantly, it signals a longer-term understanding in Washington that the ultimate resolution of the Taiwan Strait problem will not be based on arms sales.

Rather, the proper strategic understanding all sides needs to recognize more clearly is that improved political and economic interaction and confidence-building over time holds out the best possibility for a favorable resolution to the China-Taiwan dispute. Arms sales can only be a part of that picture, and should not be undertaken in a way that sets back promising developments on economic and political cooperation across the Strait. Moreover, arms sales to Taiwan are not simply an issue for the three capitals. Others in the region—Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia—will be deeply affected by the future cross-Strait situation, and certainly favor continued stability and a peaceful resolution over time. By seeing beyond the basic arms sales decision to grasp the larger strategic horizon in East Asia, the Bush Administration can make a measured decision.