US arms sales to Taiwan: impact on Sino-American relations

Author: Carlyle A Thayer, UNSW Canberra

The Obama Administration’s decision to sell Taiwan an arms package worth $5.85 billion is a carefully calibrated decision designed to meet US legal obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

It is also a decision that carefully calibrates the impact on Sino–American relations at a time of improved relations not only between Washington and Beijing but between Beijing and Taipei.

The Taiwan Relations Act imposes two legal obligations on the US Government. First it requires that the US ‘provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character.’ Second, it requires the United States — in reality the Pacific Command — ‘to maintain the capacity … to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardise the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan’.

The announcement of the arms sale could not come at a more delicate time. President Obama faces re-election in November. Taiwan will hold presidential elections in January. And China will embark on a staged leadership transition in preparation for its next party congress in 2013. Vice President Xi Jinping, heir apparent to Hu Jin-tao as state president and party general secretary, is scheduled to visit the United States later this year.

On 21 September, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency issued three notifications to Congress that it would sell a package of weapons to Taiwan under the Foreign Military Sales program. This package primarily includes the costs of retrofitting 145 of Taiwan’s F-16 A/B fighter jets, including new radars, weapons systems and structural upgrades. At the same time, the Administration decided to postpone a request by the government of Taiwan to purchase 66 advanced F-16 C/D fighters.

The arms package also included provision for a five-year extension of the present F-16 pilot training program, the sale of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, and a blanket order for spare parts for Taiwan’s F-16s, F-5s, Indigenous Defence Fighters and C-130H cargo aircraft. This arms sale will proceed unless Congress objects within thirty days.

Critics of the arms sale, such as Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) charge that President Obama ‘capitulated to Communist China’ by deciding not to sell the 66 F-16 C/D fighters that Taiwan initially requested.

This criticism is misplaced. While it is true that the F-16 C/Ds represent an important new capability, the proposed retrofitting would top up Taiwan’s air defence capability by providing their current F-16 A/Bs with 80 per cent of the capability of the F-16 C/Ds, according to Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence.

Making up the shortfall between the F-16 C/Ds and the F-16 A/Bs would not appreciably improve Taiwan’s defence capability in present strategic circumstances.

China has increased its military capacity opposite Taiwan by modernising the People’s Liberation Army Air Force with Su-27 and J-10 warplanes. China has also increased is short-range ballistic missile force opposite Taiwan to over 1,000 missiles. Quite clearly Taiwan’s defence is inextricably linked to US deterrence and force posture in the Pacific Region. This is a vital underpinning for peace and stability as long as China refuses to renounce the use of force in its quest for reunification with Taiwan.

Selling F-16 C/Ds to Taiwan would almost certainly rupture currently improving Sino–American relations and inflict collateral damage on improved cross-straits relations championed by Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou.

It is quite clear that F-16 C/D sales would likely unleash domestic and nationalist forces in both China and the United States. Moderates in both countries would come under pressure to adopt a more confrontational stance. It is hard to see how undermining current positive security trends would contribute to improving the regional security environment in general and Taiwan’s security in particular.

So far China has reacted to the Obama Administration’s decision to sell arms to Taiwan in a fairly predictable manner. The Chinese Ambassador in Washington strongly protested this decision when he was informed and warned of further consequences. The US Ambassador and the US Defence Attaché in Beijing were called in to receive a verbal protest. The Chinese media printed a range of critical views berating the United States for not talking China’s harmonious worldview seriously.

While it may be too soon to judge the full extent of Chinese retaliatory action, it appears that selected military-to-military activities will be cancelled or postponed. There are no signs of any spill over to affect political and economic relations.

A harsher response by China risks disrupting a number of diplomatic engagements scheduled later in the year such as the APEC Summit in Honolulu and the East Asia Summit in Bali. The effects of deteriorating Sino-American relations would be quickly felt across the Asia Pacific and almost certainly exacerbate tensions in the South China Sea.  Depending on how badly this played out, Asia could enter a new Cold War.

Fortunately an attempt by Senators Cornyn and Robert Menendez (D – NJ) to amend the Trade Adjustment Assistance Bill to include a clause requiring the President to sell F-16 C/Ds to Taiwan failed in the Senate with a split vote of 48 to 48. Sixty votes were needed to adopt this amendment.

US arms sales to Taiwan have elicited bipartisan support since 1979 when the US shifted diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China. It should be noted that Taiwan first asked to purchase F-16 C/D in 2007 during the Administration of President George W. Bush. His Administration postponed making a decision at the time.

Nonetheless, both Bush and Obama Administrations met their legal obligation to sell arms of a defensive nature to Taiwan. In January 2010, for example, the Obama Administration approved the sale of $6.4 billion in arms including Patriot PAC-3 missiles, communications equipment (C4ISR), two Osprey-class mine hunting ships and UH-60 utility helicopters. Total arms sales by the Obama Administration, are valued at $12.25 billion. As noted by one senior Administration official, ‘this is comparable or greater than at any other period in the history of US–Taiwan unofficial relations since the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act’.

A net assessment indicates that as long as China retains the option of using force and keeps beefing up its military and ballistic missile forces across the straits in an effort to intimidate Taiwan the US will continue to sell arms to Taiwan.

Carlyle A Thayer is an Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra

This paper first appeared in China US Focus, 29 September 2011.