Features | Security | East Asia

China Overplays Taiwan Arms

China says arms sales to Taiwan are the cause of Sino-US defence tensions. But even if they stopped now, ties would be chilly.

The poor state of Chinese-US military ties were laid bare earlier this month at a leading Asian security conference. In his June 5 speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates expressed annoyance at the refusal of the government in Beijing to allow him to visit the People’s Republic of China during his trip to Asia. He went on to express regret that the United States and China hadn’t managed to establish a ‘sustained and reliable’ defence relationship despite repeated attempts and substantial growth in their economic ties.

Gates argued that military exchanges and other defence ties were essential for avoiding misunderstandings and miscalculations between the two nations, as well as for preserving stability in a tense region. In response, Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, argued in a subsequent forum that continuing US arms sales to Taiwan, congressional restrictions on bilateral military exchanges and regular surveillance operations by US warships and warplanes were the reasons for the lack of progress in Sino-US military relations, which he said exhibited a pattern of ‘development, standstill, another development, another standstill.’ But it’s the arms sales to Taiwan that Ma singled out as the biggest sticking point, stating that ‘US arms sales to Taiwan is not just an ordinary issue.’

So is this true?

Chinese officials and commentators have repeatedly accused the United States of violating the US-China joint communiqué of August 17, 1982, which established the principles that were supposed to govern US-Taiwan arms sales. The most recent Chinese defence white paper, issued in January 2009, warned the incoming Obama administration that US military sales to Taiwan presented a serious impediment to improved China-US relations and accused Washington of worsening tensions by continuing ‘to sell arms to Taiwan in violation of the principles established in the three Sino-US joint communiqués.’

China has also been willing to act on these complaints, suspending various military visits, exchanges and other defence contacts with the Pentagon in retaliation for major US arms exports to Taiwan, including freezing military cooperation for the remainder of the Bush administration after the White House notified Congress in October 2008 of its plans to sell Taiwan $6.5 billion in defence equipment.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But the US claims that the sales are actually an effort at maintaining stability in the region, with Gates arguing in Singapore that the Obama administration was merely continuing a longstanding policy in the face of China’s ‘accelerating military build-up.’

Although the United States severed its formal defence alliance with Taipei when it recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979, the US government continues to sell arms to the country under the Taiwan Relations Act, an approach it says helps sustain the peaceful status quo by balancing the PLA’s growing capabilities. Washington fears that declining to assist the Taiwanese military would encourage China to adopt more aggressive policies toward Taiwan, increasing the risks of a Sino-American confrontation through miscalculation.

It has become clear in recent years that further defence exchanges or confidence-building measures can’t by themselves overcome what both sides view as fundamentally issues of principle—preserving regional security for the Americans, and defending national sovereignty and rights as an emerging great power for the Chinese (although as Gates noted, their persistent defence differences haven’t prevented the two sides from collaborating on other important issues, especially in the economic realm).

But it’s anyway doubtful that the United States and China could have a healthy defence relationship even if Washington were to completely sever ties with Taiwan because, despite decades of sustained engagement, the bilateral military dialogue remains highly constrained and vulnerable to disruption from external shocks.

The most important impediment to better Sino-US defence ties has been the underlying contentious nature of their relationship in general. This has been most apparent over Taiwan, but reflects deeper differences over power and values.

As the leaders of the weaker power, Chinese policymakers also fear that excessive transparency could provide the Pentagon with insights into their continuing military vulnerabilities and, influenced by a military tradition that emphasizes deception, many Chinese strategists see opaqueness as helping deter opponents by complicating their defence planning. Domestic politics also play a role, as leaders hesitate to appear weak in defending their country’s national interests.

But arguably the main obstacle to achieving a ‘sustained and reliable’ Sino-US military relationship has been the underlying climate of security tension between the two countries. At the root of this is the simple fact that China’s increasing military power is enabling Chinese policymakers to more directly challenge US military policies that Beijing has long opposed. This resistance has become evident in the repeated confrontations between the two navies in the seas off China, most notably last year’s clash over The Impeccable.

On March 8, 2009, 5 Chinese ships deliberately interfered with the operations of the unarmed USNS Impeccable while it was conducting surveillance in international waters about 120 kilometres south of China’s Hainan Island. Similar incidents occurred in subsequent weeks, signalling a deliberate Chinese campaign to challenge the US Navy’s surveillance operations in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which Chinese policymakers insist should be out-of-bounds to foreign militaries.

Another factor working against expanded military exchanges is the Chinese fear that increased transparency could provide US military intelligence with insights into Beijing’s defence vulnerabilities. In addition to not wanting to draw attention to their strategic build-up, concealing China’s military plans and assets makes it harder for potential foreign adversaries to identify Chinese military targets or respond effectively to Beijing’s military programmes. The fragility of Sino-US defence relations is evident in how frequently simple accidents have disrupted military exchanges. The mistaken US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in May 1999 led the Chinese to drastically curtail military contacts, while the April 2001 crisis resulting from the EP-3 collision off Hainan Island discouraged the Bush administration from attempting to reinvigorate military ties.

This lack of transparency has had knock-on effects, including a lack of reciprocity in the exchanges. While US officials have sought substantive dialogues and briefings, their Chinese counterparts typically prefer the symbolism of high-level interactions. Complaints about reciprocity declined during the George W. Bush administration, when US officials scaled back the exchanges in recognition that the Chinese would always limit what they’re willing to show and tell the US side. And, while Chinese leaders continue to profess a commitment to genuine military transparency, they’ve taken few steps to address US complaints about a perceived lack of reciprocity in the bilateral defence relationship.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Gates laid down a marker to Beijing: ‘It should be clear to everyone now—more than 30 years after normalization—that interruptions in our military relationship with China will not change United States policy toward Taiwan.’ The Obama administration has rightly decided to accept another temporary freezing of high-level Sino-US military ties rather than being held hostage by Chinese threats.

The problem is that Chinese policymakers clearly see the bilateral defence relationship as something that Washington wants more than Beijing. For military engagement between China and the United States to be successful, the Chinese leadership must understand that the exchanges aren’t simply a source of leverage to be employed to secure US concessions.