Strait Talk About the Arms Sale

The recent arms sale to Taiwan only buys us time—the next administration will have to undertake a reassessment of our defense relationship with Taipei.

Last Friday, the United States government gave the go-ahead to a long-delayed arms sale to Taiwan. The $6.5 billion defense package announced by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency includes the upgrade of four E-2T aircraft to HAWKEYE 2000 configuration and the sale of thirty AH-64D Block III APACHE Longbow attack helicopters as well as PATRIOT Advanced Capability (PAC-3) missiles, sea-launched HARPOON Block II missiles, JAVELIN medium-range guided anti-tank missiles, and assorted spare parts for fighter aircraft. While three other systems sought by Taipei-diesel-electric submarines, Black Hawk helicopters, and F-16 C/D fighters-were not included in the deal (the request for fighters has not even been officially accepted), the transfers will go a long way to redressing the dangerous cross-strait military imbalance that the Bush administration's de facto suspension of arms sales had occasioned, one which I have argued ultimately increased the burden on America. The Pentagon acknowledged this logic when it told Congress that:

This proposed sale serves U.S. national economic and security interests by supporting the recipient's continuing efforts to modernize its armed forces. The proposed sale will help improve the security of the recipient and assist in maintaining political stability, military balance, and economic progress in the region.

However helpful and welcome the arms sale is, a careful examination of the current situation along the Taiwan Strait reveals dynamics which cannot be adequately addressed with even the most advanced defense technologies. At best, the defense package buys some time for Washington, although the next president will not so easily dodge the geopolitical challenge that George W. Bush will punt to him.

While rhetorical and political tensions between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) government on Taiwan have decreased considerably since the inauguration in May of the latter's President Ma Ying-jeou who has undertaken a pragmatic diplomacy with the mainland-including lifting limits on cross-strait investment capital, allowing direct passenger flights, and negotiating Taiwan-China currency transactions-it nonetheless remains true that he leads a country very much under siege. Even as the island's social and economic ties with the mainland have strengthened, Beijing has not relented in its efforts to isolate Taipei diplomatically.

Last year, the Democratic People's Party government of then-President Chen Shui-bian tried and failed once more to get the United Nations General Assembly to take up the question of Taiwan's admission to the world body. This year, the Nationalist government of President Ma tried a lower-keyed approach focusing on functional and technical cooperation. At the sixty-third session of the General Assembly last week, seventeen of Taipei's African, Caribbean, Central American and Pacific diplomatic allies proposed discussing the "fundamental rights of the 23 million people of the Republic of China (Taiwan) to participate in the activities of the United Nations specialized agencies" like the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). In a joint submission, the measure's sponsors noted that not only is it senseless to exclude the country with the world's tenth largest shipping capacity (and the eighteenth largest economy) from the IMO, but the strictures against Taiwanese participation in WHO technical conferences and informational exchanges when epidemics like SARS occur seriously jeopardizes global health as a whole. And no one can explain how excluding Taiwan from the ICAO advances air safety when the Taipei Flight Information Region covers more than 176,000 square nautical miles of airspace through which some twelve major international routes cross, carrying more than 40 million passengers annually. Despite the fact that the recent measure intentionally did not raise the issue of formal UN membership, just participation in these technical organizations, it was nevertheless blocked in committee by the PRC.

Shut out of international forums, to say nothing of formal alliances, the ROC's strategic horizons are increasingly darkened by the rapid modernization of the People's Liberation Army which has largely wiped out the technological edge which the smaller Taiwanese forces once enjoyed. The growing mastery of joint operations control and the vast arms build-up on the mainland side of the strait make the use of force, which Beijing has never ruled out, an all-the-more tempting option, while rendering the American "balance of neutrality"-official agnosticism about the future status of Taiwan and opposition to both PRC military coercion and any unilateral formal declaration of independence by the ROC-increasingly untenable.