It is unimaginable that China will ever explicitly accede to major U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan. Beijing insists that the United States has repeatedly violated an agreement signed nearly three decades ago with China to limit the quantity and quality of those sales. But it is equally unimaginable that the United States would contemplate a cessation of the arms sales as long as the Chinese use their dramatically increased capabilities to threaten Taiwan.
The larger issue—both at present and for the longer term—is whether Washington and Beijing can agree that weapons sales will not be a major impediment to bilateral relations as a whole. Absent a shared understanding of the larger interests of both countries in stable and developing relations, there is a latent volatility to the arms sale issue, especially for U.S.-China military-to-military relations.
But the portents are not all worrying. The newest weapons package is configured to ensure that Taiwan retains a capacity for self-defense, and is not designed to heighten military competition across the Taiwan Strait. The inexorable growth of Chinese power makes any effort to sustain a military balance increasingly problematic.
But diligent defense preparedness by Taiwan will signal to China that the political, economic and military costs of any Chinese use of force will entail unacceptably high risks and consequences. Neither Taipei nor Washington is seeking to goad Beijing. The larger question is whether China can ultimately achieve a true modus vivendi with Taiwan that renders the buildup of military forces far less a factor in its long-term future.