The New Arms Sale to Taiwan and U.S. Policy Toward the DPPIt’s not the content of the new arms sale to Taiwan that matters so much — it’s the timing
It’s been a long time in coming, but multiple reports out of Washington suggest that at some point in December the Obama administration will announce its intention to sell Taiwan a new package of weapons that it can use to help defend itself against China. Valued at around US$1 billion, the package is reported to be relatively modest in scope and does not include either advanced fighter aircraft or diesel-electric submarines — the items long heading the Taiwanese military’s kinetic wish list. Rather, it is said to feature one or more U.S.-built missile frigates, about a dozen AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles, one replacement AH-64E Apache helicopter and various munitions including Stinger, Javelin and TOW missiles.
But even if there are no aircraft or submarines included in the sale, it is still extremely important. This is because of its timing — just weeks before Taiwanese go to the polls to elect a new president, who is virtually certain to come from the China-wary Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and a new legislature, which also seems likely to include a DPP plurality, if not outright majority.
By choosing to announce the sale just before the election, the Obama administration seems to be signaling China that it will not countenance any Chinese interference in the Taiwanese electoral process, and also — and even more important — that Taiwan’s prospective new DPP government is, in American eyes, entirely legitimate, falling squarely under the vaguely defined U.S. security umbrella in the western Pacific that has been a deliberately ambiguous element in U.S. regional policy at least since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. Particularly in light of previous American hostility toward the DPP — think, for example, of the strongly anti-Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) comments made by an unnamed National Security Council official to the Financial Times newspaper during the 2012 election cycle — that is a major departure.
To be sure, it might be argued that the American timing of the weapons sale is also meant as a “thank you” note to Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) during the waning months of his presidency. Proponents of this view can point to the sincere appreciation that Washington felt over Ma’s efforts to lower tensions in the Taiwan Strait through his China engagement program, which helped to neutralize a perennial source of friction in the region.
But this explanation blithely ignores Washington’s growing unhappiness over the deepening ties between Ma’s government and China’s militarily expansive leadership, and the widely reported American pique over Ma’s failure to provide the Americans with much more than cursory advance warning in the run-up to his late October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). Over the past 18 months in particular, the U.S. has become increasingly concerned that Ma’s government has been leaning over backwards to accommodate China’s strategic game plan in places like the South China Sea, while paying dangerously short shrift to its traditionally close relations with the U.S. In any event, had Obama really wanted to thank Ma for his work on lowering regional tensions, he could have easily delayed the weapons sale announcement to just before Ma’s scheduled departure from office in May of 2016. Having already waited more than four years since the last American weapons sale to Taiwan — the longest such period since 1979 — a few more months would hardly have mattered either way.
Significantly, the reported announcement of the new American weapons sale to Taiwan comes amid strong signs of American pushback to Chinese policies in the region. The most conspicuous of these came on Oct. 24 when the U.S. guided missile cruiser Lassen sailed close to five South China Sea islands off the Philippine coast that China has been dredging into existence as part of its program to impose its sovereignty in the area. The move followed months of serious Chinese saber-rattling, including repeated warnings that anyone with the temerity to test Chinese resolve on the islands issue would be subject to a “head-on blow” from the Chinese military. In the event however, Beijing’s reaction was conspicuously muted, consisting of little more than pro forma condemnations that only served to underscore its relative military inferiority in the western Pacific.
The sale’s reported announcement also follows strong pressure on the administration from both Republicans and Democrats to renew arms deals with Taiwan following a protracted Chinese military build-up aimed in large part at sapping Taiwan’s desire to defend itself against a future Chinese attack. In mid-November Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Ben Cardin and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain wrote to President Obama to try to get him to move on Taiwan arms issue.
“America’s long-standing commitment to Taiwan is a multifaceted and bipartisan effort that includes many components, all of which must be exercised as we seek to support and safeguard the ability of the people of Taiwan to determine their own future,” the senators wrote. “One critical component is U.S. military assistance and arms sales to Taiwan.”
Whenever the announcement of the new U.S. weapons sale to Taiwan is in fact made, it is almost certain that China will unleash another one of its angry propaganda broadsides in Washington’s direction, reflecting its long held view that Taiwan is part of its territory and that no foreign party has any tight to provide it with arms, defensive or otherwise. China could also choose to cancel some upcoming military exchanges with the U.S. or impose sanctions on the American companies involved in the new Taiwanese deal.
But as an authoritative Project 2049 Institute study clearly shows, Chinese retaliatory measures are invariably temporary, with the two sides normally resuming business as usual after a very short interval. “Past behavior indicates that China is unlikely to challenge any fundamental U.S. interests in response to any future releases of significant military articles or services to Taiwan,” the study found. “The U.S. therefore retains considerable freedom of action in abiding by the Taiwan Relations Act.”
Peter Enav was head of The Associated Press bureau in Taiwan from April 2005 to April 2014.