The critical importance of U.S. arms sales to Taipei.
The U.S. and China recently held their third annual Strategic Dialogue. Limited economic and security agreements were reached. Perhaps more important, Chinese military officers joined the discussions and toured American military facilities afterwards. Relations between the two nations appear to be thawing.
However, bilateral controversies remain. Washington and Beijing disagree on much, including trade, North Korea, and maritime rights in China’s “Near Seas.” But nothing causes greater discord than the status of Taiwan, which is pressing the U.S. to sell submarines and advanced fighters.
After being detached from the mainland by Japan more than a century ago, the island of Formosa was under effective Chinese authority only during the short interregnum between the end of World War II and the Chinese Revolution. In 1949 the defeated Kuomintang Party moved the Republic of China government to Taiwan.
During the Cold War the two Chinas were bitterly at odds. As the People’s Republic of China has grown economically and moderated politically, Beijing surged past Taipei on the international stage. Even the U.S. recognizes only the PRC and formally acknowledges but one China.
However, Washington retains a quasi-embassy in Taipei, enjoys a profitable trading relationship with Taiwan, and has promised to sell the latter weapons for its defense. China’s patience with both the ROC’s separate existence and America’s arms sales has been declining. Last year Beijing ended military contacts with the U.S. in retaliation for the latter’s announcement of a $6.4 billion arms package for Taiwan.
Despite the recent uptick in U.S.-China relations, acceding to Taipei’s latest weapons request could spark Chinese retaliation. Nevertheless, Washington should help its democratic friend defend itself.
The U.S.-China relationship likely will be the world’s most important bilateral connection this century. The two nations are tightly linked economically. They share many other interests: stability in East Asia, freedom of the seas, open global economy, cooperative international institutions.
Perhaps the most important objective between the existing superpower and the potential superpower is to avoid war. When faced with two rising powers in the late 19th century, Great Britain accommodated the U.S. and confronted Germany. The result was two world wars involving the latter. Similar conflicts between the U.S. and China would be catastrophic.
In fact, there is little over which Beijing and Washington might fight. The PRC has demonstrated little interest in overseas military expansion or attacking the U.S. Economic competition between the two is growing in Asia, Africa, and even South America, but Washington’s best response would be to liberalize the American economy, not deploy the U.S. Navy.
A clash is possible in East Asia, however. Today the U.S. dominates the region, even along China’s border. But the PRC is building deterrent forces, particularly missiles and submarines capable of sinking U.S. carriers.
The Pentagon’s latest assessment of Chinese military spending speaks of “anti-access” and “area denial” capabilities. Notably, the PRC poses no threat to the American homeland. But Beijing doesn’t want the U.S. to be able to threaten its homeland. One can imagine the U.S. reaction if the Chinese navy was patrolling America’s coasts, prepared to intervene in, say, Washington’s struggle with Hawaiian secessionists.
Unfortunately for the U.S., it is far cheaper to build defensive than offensive weapons. America could bankrupt itself attempting to protect its carriers and buy additional platforms in order to maintain its ability to attack the Chinese mainland.
Nevertheless, Washington should not abandon Taiwan, as tempting as that option might be to some. Even if the U.S. does not formally recognize the ROC, the Taiwanese people have made a separate identity for themselves.
Whatever the technical, juridical issues surrounding the China-Taiwan relationship, Taiwan is entitled to decide on its own destiny. Certainly Beijing is not justified in attempting to coerce the Taiwanese people.
The best solution would be a negotiated settlement when China institutes political as well as economic reforms. The two states and peoples have been drawing steadily closer. However, the PRC will make itself politically attractive only when it accepts a free society as well as a freer economy.
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