US arms sales to Taiwan is more of a political than military issue

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/30 22:38:39


The Trump administration on Thursday notified the US Congress of its plan to approve the sale of a $1.4 billion arms package to Taiwan. The plan, which requires Congressional approval, would be the first such sale under President Donald Trump.

The package reportedly includes torpedoes, missiles and early-warning radar support but does not include the F-35 fighters that the island's new administration desires. 

Arms sales to Taiwan have long been a serious issue in the China-US relationship. Sales of defensive weapons are a key provision of US commitments to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act. Although China has strongly condemned the US whenever such sales were made, the US has gone on its own way under each administration and has even made multiple arms deals with Taiwan during a particular presidential tenure. The scale and quality of arms package the Trump administration has just approved is of a medium level among all deals so far.

It must be noted Beijing's diplomatic protest along with some boycott actions have each time yielded noticeable results. Beijing's reaction has no doubt exerted pressure on Washington, which has to be more cautious as it lays out the plan of arms sales to Taiwan. The scale of arms sales to Taiwan normally would not be upgraded significantly under a new administration although a new president is not willing to scale back either. Washington is extremely cautious about whether to sell Taiwan the offensive weapons the island is desperate for. The quality of weapons that the US has sold to Taiwan is lower than that of weapons sold to its other major allies. 

With the mainland's growing military might, the military strength of the mainland and Taiwan is already out of balance. With only the defense spending of around $10 billion a year, less than one-tenth of the mainland's military expenditure, Taiwan's army has been dwarfed to a level of "militia" compared with its mainland's counterpart and has lost the substantial resistance capability. The annual increase of the mainland's military spending is almost equal to the island's total annual military spending. Additionally, the mainland has continuously developed new cutting-edge weapons. As time goes by, it would be increasingly an easy game for the mainland to recover Taiwan by force. 

In this light, US arms sales to Taiwan is more of a political than a military issue. Arms sales are one of the key elements of Washington's military and political engagement with Taiwan and signals Washington's reiteration of its commitment to protecting Taiwan. It is also a card Washington holds against the mainland. By adjusting the scale and timing of arms sales, Washington tries to send clearer signals to Beijing.  

Given China has more cards to play against the US and the tussles between China and the US over the arms sales to Taiwan remain locked in stalemate, China's ability to control the situation has gradually increased. In foreseeable future, the US will continue to sell arms to Taiwan, which is a reality Beijing has to face up to.

What Beijing needs to prevent most is the possible sale of F-35 fighters to Taiwan. In 1992, the US agreed to sell 150 units of advanced F-16 fighters at the time to the island, which prompted Beijing to stage a rare protest against Washington. That batch of F-16 fighters is now outdated and possessing F-35 fighters may add fuel to "Taiwan independence" activities.

To what extent will the new arms deal under the Trump administration impact the China-US relationship? This may not be a proper question to ask. The China-US relationship involves different individual cases and the case regarding arms sales to Taiwan is no doubt at the forefront of these multiple cases and a miniature of their bilateral relationship.         

China must voice necessary reactions and should not fear whether such reactions may undermine its ties with the US. What China needs to consider is what new cards the US may hold and play against China and how capably China can maneuver the mutual retaliations amid its tussle with the US.

China's relationship with the US is different from that with other countries. The US sees China its biggest potential strategic rival and the fundamental momentum of the two nations' relationship is certainly a mirror of the dynamics of power balancing between the two countries. The only way China can mitigate its strategic passivity is by increasing its own strength. In other words, this should be the first rule in the China-US relationship in years ahead.    

China cannot remain inactive against US provocations but the manner of our reactions cannot set us too far apart from where we can stand firmly. China should seek more tangible outcomes in its engagement with the US than superficial symbols. The US has made a flurry of unfriendly moves against China recently, which among other things, include the US Senate Armed Services Committee passing a bill to allow US warships to resume port visits to Taiwan and the US Treasury Department announcing sanctions against China's Bank of Dandong. The situation is testing China's will and wisdom. But this is by no means a major test for China but rather a normal "assessment quiz." China should perform firmly and steadily in the quiz. 



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