Washington on December 16 authorized a new and long-awaited arms package for Taiwan, ending an over four year hiatus in U.S. weapons sales to the island-nation—the longest such hiatus since the late 1980s. Although the approximately $1.83 billion arms package does not include any defense article that is remotely close to a “game changer,” notifications to Congress nevertheless send an important signal of continued political support for Taipei—perhaps even more so this time around, as it occurs one month prior to presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan in which the “pro independence” opposition Democratic Progressive Party ( DPP) is widely expected to prevail.
Included in the package—which is not a commitment on Taipei’s part but rather a list of articles authorized for sale—are two decommissioned FFG-7 Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigates (of four that were authorized for transfer to Taiwan in 2014) plus refurbishment and upgrades; 36 AAV-7 Assault Amphibious Vehicles; 13 MK 15 Phalanx Block 1B ship defense Close-In Weapon Systems, upgrade kits, ammunition, and support; 208 Javelin guided missiles; 769 BGM-71F-series TOW 2B Aero Radio Frequency anti-armor missiles; 250 Block I-92F MANPAD Stinger missiles; Taiwan Advanced Tactical Data Link System (TATDLS) and Link 11 communication systems integration; as well as follow-on support for Taiwan’s previously procured MIDS/LVT-1 and JTIDS.
As expected, Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, went through the usual motions and reacted angrily to the announcement, warning that it interfered with “China’s internal affairs,” that it risked undoing the “excellent hard-won results of the ‘peaceful development’ of relations between the two sides” and that it threatened to derail U.S.-China relations. Late on Wednesday night, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang issued a formal protest to the U.S. chargé d’affaires and Beijing has threatened sanctions against the U.S. defense firms involved in the arms sale. Indicatively, this was the kind of language that in the past Beijing had reserved for the sale of big-ticket items to Taiwan and an example of the kind of pressure that China is now willing to apply on Washington over Taiwan.
For Taipei, Wednesday’s announcement was a welcome development, as it is the first arms sale to Taiwan since the $5.8 billion upgrade package for Taiwan’s F-16A/Bs released in September 2011 . Taipei had to wait through nearly the entire second term of the Obama administration before it could secure a new arms package from Washington. The four-year-and-three-month hiatus had fueled speculation that the White House had given in to pressure from Beijing and was no longer willing to provide democratic Taiwan the weapons it needs to defend itself as required under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. Even if for purely symbolic reasons, this week’s arms package therefore provided confirmation that the U.S. remains committed to helping Taiwan defend itself, or at least that it is still ready to face Chinese opprobrium over defense assistance whose cessation Beijing has long called for.
Undoubtedly, the announcement occurs in a markedly different geopolitical context, at a time when U.S. perceptions of China have been influenced by China’s expansionist behavior in the South China Sea—promoting the unprecedented dispatch of a “freedom of navigation” patrol by the U.S. Navy earlier this year—a series of highly intrusive cyber attacks ostensibly originating in China, and a crackdown on civil liberties across China. Renewed interest in providing assistance to Taiwan can therefore be seen as part of a larger reassessment of the situation by Washington following Beijing’s unwillingness to act as a responsible stakeholder.
The arms package will also be interpreted in different ways in Taiwan, where some will likely regard it as a farewell “gift” to President Ma Ying-jeou of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), who will be stepping down in May next year. Many people regard President Ma, whose party is expected to receive a drubbing in next January’s elections, as the architect of rapprochement between Taipei and Beijing since 2008 and the détente that, for a while at least, dovetailed with Washington’s interests. Some will also likely argue that the latest package constitutes proof that only the KMT, which claims to have repaired Taipei’s relationship with Washington following at times bumpy bilateral ties during the Chen Shui-bian administration (2000-2008), can ensure continued arms sales from the U.S.
For Tsai Ing-wen’s DPP, the announcement will be seen as a sign of continuity and the assurance that the U.S. will continue to support Taiwan following Tsai’s expected victory on January 16, which some alarmists argue will lead to a period of renewed tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Presumably, the White House, which in the 2012 election expressed its preference for Ma’s KMT , would not have released an arms package one month before the elections if it did not intend to work with, and assist, a DPP administration, or believe that it has the ability to ensure stability in Taiwan-China ties.