Has President Barack Obama changed the rationale that has underpinned U.S. arms sales to Taiwan for 30 years, adopting a new U.S. geo-strategic perspective on U.S.-China relations? If so, what risk does that entail for the United States? U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have been a contentious issue in U.S.-China relations since the establishment of formal diplomatic relations in January 1979. Since then, U.S. presidents have strived to meet the requirements of the Taiwan Relations Act - to provide Taiwan the defense articles and services it requires to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability - as they worked to improve the on-again/ off-again U.S.-China relationship.
During that time, the geo-strategic environment has evolved but the argument for robust U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remains the same.
Today, however, given the improvements in China-Taiwan relations since Taiwan President Ma Ying-Jeou took office in May 2008, and the growing interdependence of the United States and China, many observers believe Obama seeks to greatly reduce U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and their negative effect on U.S.-China relations.
In January 2010, Obama approved the $6.4 billion arms sales package left over from the George W. Bush administration, but he is withholding approval of 66 new F-16C/Ds and eight diesel submarines and has not submitted a new Foreign Military Sales notification to Congress for Taiwan in 14 months.
Still, China's military buildup along the Taiwan Strait continues and now includes up to 1,500 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan. Beijing steadfastly refuses to renounce the use of force to reunite Taiwan with the motherland. Moreover, over the past few years, China has adopted a more abrasive, nationalistic foreign policy toward the U.S. and its own neighbors.
Supporters of arms sales to Taiwan argue that Taiwan must continue to modernize so it can improve its military capabilities and negotiate from a position of strength to deter Chinese aggression and coercion. This debate is straightforward enough. The context in which it takes place is not. China today is vastly different from the China of 1979, 1982 or even 2001, when President Bush approved in principle nearly $35 billion in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
China is a world political and economic power with more than $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt. It's a rapidly rising military power in the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. seeks China's cooperation on a broad range of problems, not the least of which are North Korea, Iran and the growing troubles in the Middle East.
U.S. policymakers, indeed, have more reason to be concerned today about how China will react to a major new arms sale than their predecessors.
Chinese reactions to past U.S. arms sales to Taiwan followed a pattern. If Beijing believed a final decision had not yet been made, it aggressively threatened the U.S. government with grave consequences, hoping to influence the decision. Once a sale was announced, it took measured and firm but temporary actions to register its displeasure.
In recent years, that has included withdrawing from U.S.-China military interaction and postponing high-level defense visits.
What Obama apparently fears is that China's reaction to the next major deal might have more serious consequences. Recent writings by senior People's Liberation Army officers and other commentators argue for a strong response, using China's new influence and leverage, and they have nudged China toward a more reactive and conservative foreign policy. What if China stopped buying U.S. bonds, sold those it has, or took some other measure harmful to the U.S.? Taiwan's relative military capabilities, however, already have fallen precariously behind China's. The risk the U.S. takes by not allowing Taiwan to replace its aging fighter aircraft fleet, acquire submarines and improve other critical systems is that Taiwan's armed forces will go beyond the point from which they can recover.
Upgrades to Taiwan's existing F-16A/Bs are not sufficient.
If Taiwan were not the vibrant capitalist democracy it has become, perhaps that risk is one the U.S. should be willing to take. After all, the U.S., China and Taiwan agree there is but one China, and Taiwan is part of China. But now, Taiwan also is part of the free and democratic world.Should the people of Taiwan lose their freedom and democracy because of the withdrawal of U.S. support, it would forever tarnish America as the beacon of freedom and democracy around the world.
The United States must continue to push the envelope on arms sales to Taiwan, providing Taiwan what it truly needs to maintain a sufficient defense capability, not what it believes Beijing will tolerate. No doubt, China will react strongly, but it can ill afford to sustain bad relations with the United States.
The U.S. has a moral obligation to Taiwan. If we are willing to defend civilian life and liberty in Libya, we should be willing to do what's necessary to give Taiwan the ability to defend itself. The time has come for a broader, more inclusive debate on Taiwan and U.S. China-Taiwan policy.
Ed Ross, president of defense consulting firmEWRoss International, Great Falls, Va., and former principal director for operations in the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.