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Washington Prepares Arms Sales for Taiwan, Risking China’s Ire

A package of arms sales being prepared by Washington for Taiwan may portend a downturn in U.S.-China relations only a year after the Obama administration entered office championing closer ties with Beijing. The ever-sensitive topic of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, considered by Beijing to be an integral part of the People’s Republic of China, will undoubtedly result in protestations by the Chinese, who have long maintained a vow to recover the island by force if necessary.

The sales of armaments and military-related equipment and support to Taiwan may hinder – temporarily at least – whatever progress made by the administration in pushing for more cooperation between the two countries in areas such as climate change, nuclear proliferation and regional security issues. Perhaps more importantly, it may also lead China to temporarily sever military-to-military contacts with the U.S.

Politically-speaking, for the Obama administration there is no good time to announce the approval of arms sales to Taiwan, only a least-damaging one. The potential sales involved may include 60 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, second-hand Perry-class frigates, design assistance on diesel-electric submarines, an upgrade deal for the “Po Sheng” (Broad Victory) C4I (command, control, communications, computers and military intelligence) system, and Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles and upgrades to Taiwan’s existing Patriot missile defense system.

These items – most notably the Patriot missiles – were previously approved by the outgoing Bush administration, many of them in December 2008 under a combined $6.5 billion bundle of defense items. Others date back earlier, to 2001 when the Bush administration first took office and concocted a $17-18 billion arms package for Taiwan. In fact, most, if not all, of these Foreign Military Sales (FMS) proposals were delayed for years by Taipei after first being proposed by the U.S. due to internal political gamesmanship involving the allocations of procurement funding. Thus, what is now being offered up by Washington is merely a reconstituted arms package postdated by almost a full decade.

With the news of the impending approval of sales by the White House come questions as to what value the items involved would be to Taiwan, which is faced with some 1,500 Chinese missiles pointed at their island nation, plus a further 140 People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA Navy) submarine and combat vessels operating in close proximity. Some argue that a serious U.S. commitment to the island’s defense would entail a significant boost to Taiwan in terms of transfer of weapons capabilities that would allow for a more equitable balance of power between the two opposing sides.

Others make the point that if Taiwan wants to continue the rapprochement with China heralded by the election of President Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, it needs to reject the latest arms offer by Washington and instead focus on final negotiation of the partial free trade agreement (the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement) with Beijing. So long as Taiwan retains a robust economy and an American commitment to defend the island, this side argues, then Taipei will have a better deterrent against Chinese aggression than anything provided within the rehashed armaments package put forward by the U.S.

So what motive – other than the obvious ones of profit and job-share for the U.S. defense industry – might lie behind the looming approval of arms sales for Taiwan? In reality, it amounts to little more than posturing by the U.S.

From the perspective of Washington, the proposed sales would allow it to lay claim to providing the means for Taiwan to defend itself from potential invasion by China. Such a move would also represent a symbolic gesture towards curtailing China’s gathering sense of triumphalism, while doing so in the least politically-damaging way. After all, the one item clearly desired by Taiwan – a longstanding request for 66 F-16C/D jet fighters – is not rumored to be under consideration for approval by the U.S., thus rendering any pretense of outrage by the Chinese somewhat hollow.

While displeasure at the U.S. arms proposals will no doubt be levelled by Beijing officials, China can hardly claim to be under threat from such transfers to Taiwan of American weaponry and defense systems. After all, China’s attempt to portray such sales as a hostile act are undercut by its amassing of an array of missiles and defense platforms easily capable of overwhelming whatever military benefit Taiwan may derive from acquiring 200-300 Patriot missiles and PAC-3 fire units. Nor will eight second-hand Perry-class frigates do much for the Taiwanese naval component as these are merely intended as replacements for ageing vessels about to be phased out of service.

For Taiwan, the limitations of the arms package might afford it the opportunity to acquire new weaponry without upsetting the delicate inroads President Ma Ying-jeou has forged with the People’s Republic. The Taiwanese government can point out to Beijing that its defense expenditures represent about one-tenth of what China spends on its military, and that while Beijing has continued to build up the PLA, stockpile missiles and expand its amphibious capabilities, Taipei will cut its defense budget for the second straight year in 2010, bringing it down to $9.3 billion.

However, perception is often greater than reality and China is upset by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan no less than the U.S. is by Chinese sales to North Korea or Iran. After all, the issue for Beijing is a distinctly personal one. At the end of the day, should Taiwan agree to purchase whatever is offered up by Washington via FMS channels, expect the knock-on effect to be a brief downturn in U.S.-China relations perhaps coupled with an effort by Beijing to further expand its cross-channel military capability.

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