Taiwan Comes Between the U.S. and China Again

Not surprisingly, China is responding badly to the Pentagon’s $6-billion arms sale to Taiwan. The Beijing government has suspended security exchanges with the Pentagon and promised to sanction American defense companies. Chinese scholars and other commentators see nefarious motives in the U.S. action and warn of negative consequences. Some call for tough retaliation. High dudgeon is in season. In Washington, some worry that Beijing will withdraw its cooperation on matters of real importance to the United States, such as Iran and North Korea.

Before we panic over the high-pitched Chinese reaction, it is worth remembering the reasons for the Obama administration’s decision. What drives the U.S. defense support of Taiwan, including arms sales, is how the island’s civilian and military leaders assess their security needs. That assessment, in turn, is shaped by China’s military buildup as it affects Taiwan. In fact, that buildup has continued even though the threat that China has perceived from Taiwan has receded since Ma Ying-jeou became the island’s president in May 2008.

So the logic behind the sale is simple: China has increased the island’s vulnerability even when it did not need to do so; at the request of Taiwan, the Obama administration seeks to reduce the island’s insecurity.

Some context is in order. Since the mid-1990s, relations across the Taiwan Strait deteriorated as each side feared that the other was preparing to challenge its fundamental interests. China feared that Taiwan’s former leaders would go for full, legal independence. Taipei feared that Beijing would use its growing power to subordinate Taiwan. Each sought to counter the perceived plans of the other, which only intensified the mutual suspicion. As this vicious circle widened, Washington worried about the danger of a clash.

Tensions have declined since Ma has chosen to address Taiwan’s China challenge through engagement, and thereby improved China’s strategic position. Oddly, the People’s Liberation Army continues to procure and deploy equipment that puts Taiwan at risk. According to the annual Pentagon report on China’s military power, Beijing each year probably adds 100 short- and medium-range missiles, which target Taiwan.

Why China has not adjusted to the new, positive reality is puzzling. Is it because of rigid procurement schedules? Is it because civilian leaders cannot impose a change even when it makes policy sense? Or is it because China wishes to create the capacity to coerce and intimidate Taiwan? The answer is not clear.

What is clear is that this trend is in no one’s interests — Taiwan’s, China’s or the United States’. Taiwan’s leaders are unlikely to negotiate seriously on the issues on Beijing’s agenda under a darkening cloud of possible coercion and intimidation. The Taiwanese will not continue to support pro-engagement leaders if they conclude that this policy has made Taiwan less secure. The U.S. will not benefit if mutual fear again pervades the Taiwan Strait. Hence, the Obama administration is right to enhance Taiwan’s sense of security with the most recent arms sales.

What are the costs to the U.S. for this decision? Beijing has focused so far on bilateral security ties, suspending military exchanges and dialogues, for example. This is Beijing’s typical response to U.S. arms sales, and may be the way the regime shows the Chinese public that it has “done something” to resist the United States. Although these dialogues could be useful in reducing tensions, Beijing has not used them in that way, so the effect of dropping them is modest.

The bigger question is whether Beijing’s punishment will go further, such as refusing to cooperate with the U.S. on Iran and North Korea. Such cooperation has great promise as a central part of a positive U.S.-China agenda. Yet Beijing has been reluctant to get tough with either Tehran or Pyongyang. If its policies were more in line with U.S. interests, Washington might take Chinese sensitivities regarding Taiwan into consideration, at least in calibrating the timing of its arms sales decision.

Chinese critics of U.S. arms sales tend to assume that Washington is using arms to block China’s unification with Taiwan. Nothing could be further from the truth. U.S. support for Taiwan’s defense is and should be a function of the island’s sense of insecurity, which in turn is the result of China’s policies. Chinese critics should examine how their government’s own actions have fostered the very outcome they oppose.