Arms Sales to Taiwan: Ending the ‘Brutal Interference’Beijing is successfully cracking down on the means by which the U.S. provides military assistance to Taiwan. It’s time to change the rules of the game
Beijing’s reaction on Dec. 19 to U.S. President Barack Obama’s signing into law of an act of Congress authorizing the sale of four decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates to Taiwan — saying the move “brutally interferes in China’s domestic affairs and undermines China’s sovereignty and security interests” — was, by standards of Chinese anger over previous arms sales to the island, a bit overdone. The outburst, over what is arguably a minor transfer of defense articles, can only mean one thing: After years of successfully deterring Washington from selling weapons to Taiwan, Beijing is redefining what constitutes “acceptable” arms transfers to Taiwan and what isn’t.
Up until recently, China’s ire over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan was usually sparked by the announcement of billion-dollar arms packages to Taiwan, which furthermore consisted of modern defense articles (PAC-3 air defense systems, F-16 combat aircraft, submarines) that would ostensibly directly affect the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. In those cases, Beijing would file an official complaint, threaten sanctions against the U.S. firms involved in the sale, and would temporarily suspend military-to-military exchanges with the U.S.
Meanwhile, more modest transfers, such as the annual procurement of PAC-3 missiles, spare parts, decommissioned vessels and other platforms, rarely resulted in official expressions of discontent by Beijing — at least not of the stridency that was seen last week.
As I have argued elsewhere, the four Cold War-era vessels approved for sale to Taiwan as excess defense articles last week are hardly a major acquisition by the Taiwanese Navy. Although the USS Taylor, USS Gary, USS Carr, and USS Elrod will be outfitted with surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles and would ostensibly play an ASW role, their addition certainly does not justify the accusations of “brutal interference.” One need only think of the vulnerability of large surface combatants to missiles attacks from China’s Second Artillery Corps, Navy, and Air Force due to Taiwan’s geography and limited number of available ports, to realize that the millions of dollars that will be spent acquiring and arming the missile frigates are not necessarily the best way to spend Taiwan’s finite defense budget.
Despite all this, Beijing has chosen to make a big deal out of the matter, and the reason it does so isn’t because of the nature of the articles involved, but their symbolism. Ever since the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) was enacted and the Three Communiqués were signed, arms sales to Taiwan have occurred along two axes: their defensive and symbolic value.
The first axis is simple enough to understand: Will the acquisition by Taiwan of item X give it the capability it needs, by itself or in conjunction with other means, to defend itself against Chinese attack? There is no doubt, for example, that the sale of 145 F-16A/Bs to Taiwan in the early 1990s had such a direct impact on Taiwan’s ability to counter a Chinese offensive.
The second axis is subtler, but by no means less important: Rather than aim to substantially bolster Taiwan’s defensive capabilities, the object is to use arms sales as a symbol of continued U.S. support for Taiwan and thereby counter perceptions of “abandonment.” In other words, the value of arms sales along the second axis is political rather than military, and helps account for certain acquisitions over the years that were of questionable value militarily.
For years, Beijing had concentrated its propaganda (and anger) on the first axis. Its main target was the sale of defense articles to Taiwan that would complicate the ability of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to launch offensive operations against the island. However, starting in the early 2000s, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, due largely to pressure from Beijing and a changed geopolitical context making the U.S. more dependent on China, began to occur increasingly along the second axis. The defensive value of the items released therefore underwent a concomitant shift downwards, while their symbolic value increased amid fears of abandonment.
Having for the most part eliminated the first axis (no F-16C/Ds, submarines, or other “game changers” on offer), Beijing subsequently turned its attention to the second. As it had successfully done with the first axis, it gradually heightened the bar of acceptability so that the potential cost to the U.S. (always the target of Beijing’s anger over arms sales, rather than Taiwan) of releasing articles of symbolic value increased. We have now reached a point where the sale of four hulls, which entered service in the early 1980s, is a major infraction. And the object of contention isn’t a billion-US-dollar sale: its value is estimated at NT$5.6 billion, or a mere US$185 million.
So what can be done to counter this? One solution would be to abandon the second axis altogether (and finding other ways to express continued political support for Taipei) while rethinking the means by which the U.S. can assist Taiwan to ensure it retains the ability to defend itself. What this probably means is an end to high-profile U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Interestingly, Taiwan has already commenced work in that direction, albeit for reasons that had little to do with the strategic reassessment along the lines proposed here. Although many of the programs were initiated under his predecessor, it really was under the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration that Taiwan committed to an indigenous defense strategy. While the decision to focus on domestic R&D and production arose out of budgetary constraints (stemming from a shift to an all-volunteer military and US$18 billion owed the U.S. for previous acquisitions), it nevertheless proposes a way out — or a way in, rather — for the U.S.
Instead of selling weapons to Taiwan and risk angering Beijing, the U.S. defense sector could act more subtly by quietly assisting Taiwan with its many indigenous programs. Such assistance could come in the form of designs, parts, or through the secondment of engineers and technicians, who may or may not be required to “retire” before doing so. Politically, it could also mean more permissiveness on the part of the U.S. State Department when it comes to efforts by Taiwan to access certain dual-use technologies.
Although this approach would likely signify lower revenues for major U.S. arms firms given that it would practically end efforts to secure future major U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, this new program would nonetheless create sundry opportunities for cooperation and procurement of parts for assembly in Taiwan, as a recent blue paper by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party has suggested. (The case could certainly be made that major defense packages for Taiwan are highly unlikely to materialize in the near future anyway.) Furthermore, by working behind the scenes, this approach would deny Beijing the ability to exert influence on the second axis, as this axis would simply have ceased to exist.
Evidently, such cooperation could eventually draw Beijing’s attention and compel it to issue threats over the matter. But doing so would arguably be much more difficult, as Beijing wouldn’t have an actual platform or dollar figures to focus on. Moreover, it would be much easier for the U.S. and Taiwan to deny that such cooperation is occurring, especially if creative ways were found so that such operations could occur beyond the scope of traditional Foreign Military Sales (FMS) rules.
Beijing is successfully cracking down on the traditional means by which the U.S. has provided military assistance to Taiwan. One way of continuing to help the island while avoiding a costly political battle with Beijing is to change the rules of the game — or to play a new game altogether.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.