Report: Chinese Reactions to Taiwan Arms Sales

April 17, 2012

Chinese Reactions to Taiwan Arms Sales

(Arlington, Virginia, April 17, 2012)

Report by Rupert Hammond-Chambers and Randall Schriver
Edited by Lotta Danielsson
Published by the US-Taiwan Business Council and the Project 2049 Institute

Ensuring Taiwan’s national security is fundamentally in the interest of the U.S. Any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, is a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific, and therefore of grave concern to the U.S.

Guided by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and consistent with understandings outlined in Joint Communiqués, American security assistance to Taiwan – supplying Taiwan with arms necessary to provide for its own self-defense – has enabled democracy to flourish on the island. Substantial support for Taiwan has also served as a visible reminder of U.S. commitments to peace and security in the Asia Pacific.

For over 30 years, the U.S. has played an important role in helping to ensure Taiwan’s national security, while also maintaining constructive relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Nevertheless, the TRA and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have been, and will continue to be, contentious issues in the U.S.-China relationship. The dispute is rooted in ambiguity contained within the U.S. version of the “One China” principle, differences in opinion regarding the nature of U.S. relations with Taiwan, and questions regarding the legitimacy of PRC coercive use of military force against Taiwan.

When the U.S. established diplomatic relations with China in 1979, it was premised on the expectation that the PRC would adopt peaceful means to resolve its political differences with Taiwan. As outlined in U.S. Department of State testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on August 17, 1982, the most credible metric of Beijing’s commitment to a peaceful approach on this matter is the nature of its military posture toward Taiwan. Theoretically, if PRC military capabilities directed against Taiwan increase, then a wider array of defense articles and services should be made available to Taiwan in order to increase the costs of Chinese use of force and to enable the Taiwan government to negotiate with their counterparts in Beijing with confidence.

As defined in the TRA and consistent with understandings reflected in the 1982 Joint Communiqué, U.S. arms sales decisions should be based entirely upon the nature of the military challenge faced by Taiwan. The TRA expressly states that “the President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan.” Today, the PRC military challenge to Taiwan continues to grow, calling into question Beijing’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the situation in the Taiwan Strait. Yet U.S. decisions – or lack thereof – concerning arms sales to Taiwan now appear to be shaped primarily by fear of Beijing’s anticipated response rather than by Taiwan’s needs. As the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to expand its military posture opposite Taiwan, the U.S. has demonstrated a clear reluctance to live up to its TRA-imposed obligations.

Over the past five years, senior members of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have exercised extreme caution when evaluating Taiwan’s requests for defense articles and services. These policymakers may believe that China’s cooperation on a range of global issues – and/or the ongoing progress in cross-Strait relations, such as the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (EFCA) – warrants withholding release of any new or significant military equipment to Taiwan. These U.S. policymakers may also be hoping for a substantive draw-down of China’s military posture opposite Taiwan, and may believe that they are providing sufficient time for such a move to take place. Beijing should be rewarded for cooperation with the U.S. on non-proliferation issues, global economic security, climate change, and other issues. However, such rewards should not include U.S. abandonment of our security commitments to Taiwan.

Potential PRC reactions to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan may warrant some caution, and Washington has to expect some manner of chastisement by Beijing when the U.S. provides Taiwan with significant security assistance. Nevertheless, China should also expect that its continued reliance on military instruments of coercion to resolve political differences will come at a cost. Sound U.S.-China relations rest upon the assumption that Beijing will adopt peaceful means to resolve differences with Taiwan. A de facto freeze on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, imposed while the PRC continues to expand its military capabilities opposite Taiwan, legitimizes military coercion as a valid tactic for China.

This report will begin by outlining the policy basis for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan enshrined in the TRA and associated with the 1982 Joint Communiqué. It will then review the historical record of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, along with – where possible – corresponding PRC reactions. The concluding section summarizes Beijing’s presumed strategy in seeking a halt to arms sales, evaluates possible responses to future arms sales based on the historical record, and examines U.S. policy options for managing those responses without sacrificing U.S. interests.

The report offers a comprehensive and reasoned historical analysis of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and subsequent Chinese responses. Based on this historical context, the report concludes that while Beijing’s responses should indeed be considered and appropriate contingency plans developed, the U.S. should not be deterred by PRC reactions from approving legitimate requests for arms by Taiwan. While limited and largely symbolic retaliations for future arms sales cannot be ruled out, the PRC is unlikely to actually challenge fundamental U.S. interests over arms sales to Taiwan.

A mix of positive and negative incentives is needed to persuade Beijing to reduce its coercive military posture opposite Taiwan. A reduced U.S. security commitment to Taiwan instead legitimizes the PRC’s reliance on military coercion, increases the chances that China could resort to force to resolve territorial or sovereignty disputes around its periphery, and reduces the likelihood that Taiwan will engage in meaningful political dialogue with Beijing. The goal is not a long-term or indefinite arrangement for arms sales to Taiwan. Rather, the goal should be creation of conditions in the Taiwan Strait where the two sides can resolve their differences in an environment free from military coercion.

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