Special Report

Squaring the Triangle: America, China, and Taiwan

The critical importance of U.S. arms sales to Taipei.

By 6.1.11

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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.

In the meantime, the U.S. should permit arms sales that enable Taipei to maintain a military deterrent just as China is building a deterrent to America. Taiwan is wealthy, but falling further behind the PRC in overall economic strength. Thus, Taipei should not "try to match the PRC ship for ship, plane for plane, or missile for missile," as the Washington-based Taiwan Policy Working Group observed. Rather, Taipei should build a small but deadly force capable of exacting a high price from any attackers.

Last year's weapons package included Harpoon and Patriot missiles, mine-detection ships, Blackhawk helicopters, and communications equipment. Washington put off any decision on advanced F-16s and diesel submarines. But Taiwan is now pressing for the fighters and subs.

The Obama administration should say yes.

China might retaliate diplomatically. But empowering Taiwan is worth risking tenser relations with the PRC. After all, arms sales do not put America and China on a path to war. Rather, they create a disincentive for Beijing to consider war as an option, irrespective of Washington's perceived willingness to intervene.

Moreover, while U.S.-Chinese ties may be warming, Beijing remains recalcitrant on important issues like North Korea. Indeed, the North's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il has made another visit to the PRC, his third in a year, presumably to beg for more aid. 

Indeed, China has been expanding ties with Pyongyang even as the latter has provoked South Korea almost to war. Beijing also subsidizes other pariah regimes, such as Burma and Zimbabwe. The PRC is determined to pursue what it perceives to be its national interest. So should the U.S.

Ultimately, a reasonable accommodation between China and Taiwan is more likely if Taipei possesses the ability to defend itself. Of course, Taipei should not be purely reliant on America. Then its security will depend on the vagaries of politics in Washington as well as the state of U.S.-Chinese relations. Noted Liu Yu-jiun of Taiwan's Fo Guang University: "If you put too much emphasis on imports and something goes sour between importer and exporter, you end up with an empty hand."

Taiwan recently deployed its third generation of Brave Wind anti-ship missiles. Taipei also is considering production of the Hsiung Feng-2E ballistic missile. Even a small strategic deterrent would force the PRC to hesitate before threatening Taiwan.

Ultimately, Washington's objective in helping enable Taipei to defend itself is to ensure that the latter never actually has to do so. Peace is in the interest of Taiwan, China, and the U.S. Washington should promote a good relationship with the PRC. But the U.S. should view continuing arms sales to Taipei as perhaps the best means to maintain stability and peace across the Taiwan Strait.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).