The Taiwan Problem

It’s foolish for America to assume selling weapons to Taipei won’t harm our relationship with Beijing.

Six years ago, Travis Tanner and I, responding in The National Interest to a critical missive penned by Gary Schmitt, warned:

We would disagree, however, with his assertion that the United States "does not have to choose" between keeping good relations with Russia and China and supporting allies like Taiwan or Georgia. This, to us, seems like wishful thinking. Sometimes we have to choose. And as realists, we feel that our choices must be grounded in a clear assessment of America's foreign policy priorities.

Somehow this assessment doesn't seem to have guided the announcement that the United States is going to supply Taiwan with another round of military equipment. Since this occurs against the backdrop of a stated administration goal of strengthening the partnership with China, apparently the U.S. government felt it did not have to make any choices.

There are a number of good strategic reasons why the United States wants to sell advanced weaponry to Taiwan. But Washington should have been under no illusions that it would be possible to simultaneously provide a major weapons package to Taipei while somehow believing that this would have little or no impact on relations with Beijing. The Obama administration cannot pursue its stated goal of a stronger partnership with the People's Republic if it believes that it can somehow "compartmentalize" Taiwan as an issue from the larger China-U.S. bilateral relationship. This is especially true now that there are some real improvements in the Taiwan-China relationship since the arrival of the Ma Ying-jeou administration that might-and here I stress that this is a very tenuous might-start a process toward eventual reconciliation.

Alexander Huang, strategic-studies professor at Tamkang University in Taipei, was cited in today's Wall Street Journal as confident that Beijing's protests over the arms sales will be limited. But this optimism may be premature. In the past, that might have been the case. Today, however, it is Washington that increasingly needs Chinese acquiescence to policies that matter a great deal to the United States-closing sanctions loopholes on Iran, revaluing its currency, doing more on climate change. And, of course, China could choose not to buy from U.S. companies-a threat that certainly has Boeing concerned-and for a president who wants to double U.S. exports in five years to provide 2 million new jobs, this could be a potent threat indeed.

Perhaps the Obama administration has come to the conclusion, after its experiences during its first year in office, that the government in Beijing is not going to accommodate key U.S. interests. In that case, reminding the PRC that the United States can take steps to affect Beijing's core interests-and securing the loyalty of smaller allies in the process-is an understandable reaction. This also has an impact on where the administration is taking Iran policy in its second year. If, as I've argued on this site before, the Obama team is coming to the conclusion that sanctions are not going to be an effective tool, and is considering either some form of covert action and/or shifting to a perspective of regime change, then Chinese cooperation becomes less important-especially if Beijing was never offering any substantive assistance in tightening up sanctions. Sure, the diplomatic maneuverings can continue, but if the administration is now readying a Plan B for Iran, then continual efforts to woo Chinese support become less critical.

What would be problematic, however, is if Washington was expecting greater Chinese support on a number of issues-not just Iran, but also Afghanistan/Pakistan, trade, climate change, trade talks, etc.-and went ahead with this particular package at this time with no calculations of the potential costs and benefits. There are never binary choices in policy. But there are gradations. How the United States chooses to interpret the requirements of Congressional legislation that mandate support for Taiwan's ability to defend itself is in the eye of the beholder in Washington. One hopes that the costs and benefits of choosing this particular course of action were weighed carefully-and that no one has seriously miscalculated. Perhaps professor Huang's optimism will be borne out once again. We can only hope.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.