A Smarter Way to Sell Arms to Taiwan
On the Kinmen Island only a few miles east of mainland China, Taiwan deploys anti-ship missiles, surface-to-surface missiles, monitoring radar and remote howitzers. Among these arms directly pointing at China, the most advanced ones are from the United States.
Every round of U.S. eye-catching and pricy arms package sales to Taiwan irritates China. These sales of advanced armaments lead to intense condemnation of Washington and sanctions against U.S. companies. However, by changing current arms package sales to the approach of a steady stream of small deals, the United States can relieve tensions with China and better fulfill its security commitment to Taiwan.
The U.S. has sold arms to Taiwan since establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. These arms sales help the U.S. to fulfill the security commitment to the island based on the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). However, with the current approach, the U.S. is failing to help Taiwan to deter China, and also risks U.S.-Taiwan-China trilateral relations.
Instead, the U.S. can sell more arms, especially those for defensive purposes, to Taiwan in a steady stream of small increments. The U.S. should announce and deliver arms packages separately, bringing the price tag for each sale below $1 billion. The advantages of this approach are significant:
Bolster U.S. credibility. China’s severe complaints about U.S. arms sales raise insecurity and doubts not only in Taiwan, but also with other U.S. allies in the region: South Korea and Japan. With the suggested approach—selling more arms, but below the radar — the United States can uphold its security commitments as well as international obligations. It will significantly enhance U.S. credibility in the region, especially among U.S. allies.
Stabilize U.S.-Taiwan-China trilateral relations. Smaller arms deals between the U.S. and Taiwan are much less likely to irritate China. China will find it difficult to impose severe sanctions because of an arms deal only worth millions of dollars. The U.S. has been balancing between China and Taiwan since 1979, and has successfully avoided significant conflict across the strait. Peace has provided the environment for the growth of Taiwan’s democracy, as well as the vast increase of trade between the U.S. and China. This policy will help the U.S. to maintain the status quo.
Secure Taiwan and its democracy. The increased number of arms sold will equip Taiwan with better capability to deter China. If China were to conduct an attack, Taiwan would be able to resist longer before the U.S. came to rescue. Facing the rapid rise of Chinese military power and the prospect of decreased U.S. arms sales, Taiwan has become more and more vulnerable against China. This policy will help to secure Taiwan and its democracy.
How can the U.S. implement this policy effectively? The U.S. can reach a private agreement on larger multi-year deals with Taiwan, in order to keep arms production lines open. However, public announcements of arms agreements should be small and incremental. Like past arms deals, the arms sales under this policy can be operated by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency in the Department of Defense. Even though there is a chance that China may find out about the private agreement, it will be hard for China to create a pretext for war building on rumors.
The U.S. has been keeping “a robust unofficial relationship” with Taiwan for decades. This relationship has assisted the “Taiwan Economic Miracle” in the 1980s, promoted Taiwan’s democratization in the 1990s, and secured the well-being and confidence of Taiwanese people in the 21st century. U.S. support underpins Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy, and arms sales are the central element of that support. Moreover, the U.S. security commitment to Taiwan is vital to the geopolitical balance in East Asia, hence crucial to the U.S. and its allies’ security.
With this increased yet less risky arms sale approach to Taiwan, the U.S. will be able to not only secure Taiwan and its allies in East Asia, but also the U.S. homeland. Last but not least, it will help the U.S. to preserve both the reality and its image as a world leader and guardian of democracy.