In 1978, when the People’s Republic of China and the United States were negotiating the opening of official diplomatic relations, set for January of the following year, the issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan was left up in the air as a matter to be dealt with once relations had been established. Thirty-six years later, the United States has continued to sell arms to Taiwan, but there have been fundamental shifts in the balance of power and bilateral relationships within the larger three-way relationship between the United States, China and Taiwan.
Three months after the United States and China established official relations in 1979, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, setting a legal basis for the United States to continue to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”
Additionally, in July 1982, one month prior to the signing of the Aug. 17 communiqué by the United States and China, President Ronald Reagan (via his U.S. representative in Taiwan James Lilley) gave Taiwanese President Chiang Ching-kuo “six assurances,” promising that the United States had not yet agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan, nor agreed to hold prior consultations with Beijing over the issue.
The key component behind these two statements was that “the President and Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of defense articles and services for Taiwan based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan.”
This “determination” naturally left considerable space for flexible interpretation – a fact that the United States, Taiwan and China all understand well.
U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are a political issue. The United States has global and regional security interests and both conflicting and aligned bilateral trade interests with China to consider, as well as having to assess the impact on the peace and stability of Taiwan. Of course, the United States has also attempted to dictate Taiwan’s foreign, national defense and cross-strait policies through arms sales, as well as use those weapons and armaments to constrain Taiwanese military strategy.
The arms sales also touch upon business interests. Over many years of U.S. military campaigns abroad, its weapons have all been tested in battle, and as such, enjoy a certain reputation for quality among the militaries of many nations and in the international arms market. Corporations within the U.S. arms industry gain revenue from arms sales, and their business is far-reaching. Taiwan’s own national defense-related industries are underdeveloped, and must haggle and make decisions about U.S. arms sales while caught between being alternately derided as spendthrift or unable to close a deal; the pressure upon them being far greater than in any typical business transaction.
Arms purchases and weapons acquisitions are simply a necessity for modernizing national defense capabilities. Taiwan’s attempts to procure arms from the United States cannot be offhandedly labeled as paying insurance fees for Taiwanese security, nor can they be broadly generalized as favors to U.S. arms dealers while ignoring the benefits of modernizing the military, developing skills and expanding horizons for military personnel, obtaining much-needed upgrades over old armaments, as well as maintaining a basic defensive war-fighting capability.
However, it has now been four years since the last arms sale to Taiwan, and the [fact that] the U.S. government has delayed its decision for so long is cause for some concern. Meanwhile, the purchase of submarines, which has received a rare consensus throughout the nation and among the three branches of the military, has been postponed indefinitely; one fears that future U.S. decisions on arms sales to Taiwan will only become more difficult. Now, with the Taiwanese presidential election approaching, prospects for cross-strait relations being up in the air, and the state’s coffers far from full, we must stay alert and pragmatically reexamine changes in U.S. policy toward China and its evaluations of Chinese military strength, as well as the sum of its calculus on policy toward Taiwan.
For over 30 years, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan has been the most sensitive topic in relations between the United States, China and Taiwan, and regardless of what position either Taiwanese party may take or the amount and type of arms they wish the United States to sell, the maintenance and advancement of Taiwan’s national defense forces cannot be cut short. In other words, we can assess these arms deals, but we cannot stymie the modernization of the military, nor see the efforts of those both within and without the government who have tirelessly negotiated with the United States come to naught.
While finding a peaceful resolution to the cross-strait dispute is our goal, strengthening our national defense forces is a necessary guarantor of peace for Taiwan. In the face of the complex international environment and security challenges of the future, we sorely need a debate on the weight and priority that must be apportioned between military purchases from other nations and our military autonomy. We must also minimize missteps in this limited window of opportunity, resolve to strengthen our war-fighting capabilities, and strive to achieve an “awakening of the force” within the Taiwanese military.
To quote a phrase from “Star Wars,” as the Jedi knights say to each other: “May the Force be with you, always.”
The author is an assistant professor at Tamkang University’s Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies and chairman of the Council on Strategic and Wargaming Studies.