Thoughts on U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan

Editor’s Note: On January 14, 2014, Richard Bush spoke at “Threading the Needle: U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan,” an event hosted by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

It is my great pleasure to provide a few comments on a policy report by Piin-Fen Kok and David Firestein. This is a really valuable resource that pulls together a lot of useful information. For example, when I worked on Capitol Hill, I kept track of way in which notification of defense articles to Taiwan differed sometimes sharply from deliveries, as this report does. That material is probably somewhere in my basement, but if I had to find it I’m not sure I could. Now I don’t have to worry because it’s all in “Threading the Needle.” So it will be on my shelf of studies that need to be accessible on a moment’s notice. More importantly, I agree with the sound conclusions that are drawn from the report’s analysis.

Each of us comes at the general subject of Taiwan and at specific subsidiary issues in different ways. The authors of “Threading the Needle” have their way. This morning, I would like to provide my own analytical perspective.

As an aside, I have long felt that the August 1982 communique, which figures a lot in “Threading the Needle,” was not one of the shining hours of American diplomacy. Far from it. In terms of substance and process, it was not a good outcome for the United States. But I’ve discussed that elsewhere and won’t dwell on it here.

From my own perspective, I would make five basic points.

The first point is that any analysis of China’s approach to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan must start with Beijing’s own logic on the issue.

The starting point here is Deng Xiaoping’s conversation with Leonard Woodcock on December 15, 1978 on the arms sales issue. This was a difficult meeting that revealed that the two governments had a fairly significant disagreement. Among other things, Deng told Woodcock that “continued arms sales would amount to retaining the essence of the MDT, that such sales would block efforts to find a rational means of settling the Taiwan issue peacefully, and that force would be left as the last resort.” Specifically, Deng warned that if Chiang Ching-kuo “should lean on certain powerful support, say the provision of arms, and refuses to talk to us about the problem of reunification,” that was a circumstance in which China would use force against Taiwan.

When Deng visited the United States in January 1979, he repeated this condition. He claimed that Beijing had a “fair and reasonable policy” towards Taiwan and would “try our very best to use peaceful means” to solve the issue. China had patience, he said, but the patience was not unlimited.

This link between Taiwan’s willingness to negotiate and China’s non-use of force continues, I would argue until today. It occurs in an important speech that Qian Qichen gave in 2001 on the “two hands” of Beijing’s Taiwan policy. It occurs in the 2000 White Paper. And it was enshrined most authoritatively in the Anti-Secession Law of 2005.

Note how this relationship sheds new light on the key linkage in the August 1982 Communique: between China’s statement of a “fundamental policy to strive for a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question” and the U.S. agreement to reduce arms sales. For Washington, China’s stated policy provided, it claimed, a context that made weapons sales to Taiwan less necessary. For Beijing, on the other hand, a U.S. reduction in arms sales, “leading to a final resolution” is the precondition for avoiding the use of force.

My second point has to do with odd, asymmetric character of the bargain undertaken in the August 1982 Communique. Simply put, Beijing makes a commitment about its intentions (that is, it commits to strive for a peaceful solution) in return for a U.S. commitment to restrict Taiwan’s military capabilities. The problem, of course, is that intentions are eminently and quickly reversible while creating or restoring capabilities can take a long time. Moreover, Beijing’s statement of its intentions has always been stated in an ambiguous way, and it has always reserved the right to determine whether circumstances have changed to the point that a change in intentions is necessary. This asymmetry between PRC intentions and ROC capabilities may not have been such a big issue at the time that the Communique was signed, but that has changed. As “Threading the Needle” clearly explains, China’s acquisition and use of its capabilities since the early 1990s calls into question its peaceful intent. Based on its own logic, however, China would say that its acquisition and use was made necessary by actions by Taiwan leaders that frustrated China’s desire for a peaceful solution.

My third point is to question the very premise of the PRC logic that created the linkage between U.S. arms sales, Taiwan’s willingness to negotiate, and whether China need to use force to fulfill its goals. Obviously, whether Taipei is willing to negotiate with Beijing is a function of its confidence that those negotiations won’t hurt Taiwan’s fundamental interests. Precisely because Beijing reserves the right to use force, the greater Taiwan’s ability to deter, the more confidence it will have to negotiate. And there is plenty of evidence that there is a weak correlation at best between U.S. arms sales and Taipei’s willingness to negotiate with Beijing. Just look at the last five years.

But, there is another, basic reason why Taiwan is reluctant to negotiate with China. That is, Beijing’s formula for resolving the fundamental dispute between it and Taiwan. That formula, one country, two systems, has been around for over thirty years, and its acceptability on Taiwan is about as low in the early 2010s as it was in the 1980s. There is a broad consensus on the island – Blue and Green – that one country, two systems is fundamentally flawed and incompatible with Taiwan’s interests. That would seem to be a good reason not to negotiate on the fundamental dispute, even though there might be other, lesser issues on which talks are useful. But there is no reason for the United States or anyone else to accept the PRC logic on arm sales and the prospects of negotiations. The better way for Beijing to achieve its political goals concerning Taiwan would be to make a more acceptable offer.

My fourth point is related, and has to do with how this report addresses what has happened in Taiwan over the last three decades. In brief, democratization has transformed the how cross-Strait relations are conducted. The premise of the Deng Xiaoping logic, I would guess, was that reunification simply required a negotiation between senior leaders of the CCP and the KMT. The only question was whether the offer would be attractive enough and leveraged enough to get Chiang-Ching-kuo’s agreement. Since the early 1990s, of course, Taiwan’s political parties and 18 million registered voters have gained a seat at the negotiating table, along with the island’s political leaders. For example, one might speculate that a majority of voters in 2008 and 2012 voted for Ma Ying-jeou because they believed that he would bring greater stability in cross-Strait relations and strengthen ties with the United States, including arms sales. In my view, more coverage of the implications of Taiwan’s democratization would have made “Threading the Needle” a stronger report.

My fifth and final point has to do with the political character of arms sales versus their military value. Of course, the U.S. transfer of advance weapons systems to Taiwan has a political character for both Beijing and Taipei. That is particularly true of civilian leaders in both places, who happen to be the folks that most of us talk to. But U.S. weaponry is not trivial in a military sense. From the U.S. perspective, its arms sales, whatever their political value for Taiwan, should also contribute to Taiwan’s ability to deter a Mainland attack or threat of attack. If we were to decide to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of such an attack, we would need Taiwan to hold on for several weeks while we do all that would be needed to mount that defense. So Taiwan needs the capability to hold on. Optimally, if it possesses that capability then Beijing is less likely to consider an attack in the first place. In this regard, there is growing concern that Taiwan’s past defense strategy, on which its arms requests to the United States are based, is no longer appropriate to its threat environment, thus reducing the deterrent effect of the capabilities it has or might have.