The Obama administration’s decision to sell $5.8 billion in arms to Taiwan has been roundly criticized by Beijing, and has clouded bilateral relations at a time of global economic uncertainty, increased tensions in the South China Sea and ahead of the leadership transition in China next year. Add in presidential elections in the United States and Taiwan in 2012, and it’s clear that this is an extremely sensitive period in Sino-US ties.
Unlike the $6.4 billion arms sales to Taiwan last year, which had been initiated by President George W. Bush in 2008 and only implemented by the current administration, Obama’s package to Taiwan reflects his administration’s own delicate balancing act between multiple interests. By providing one of the largest ever weapons sales to Taiwan, the White House hopes to satisfy demands from Taiwan for continuous US political and military support while staving off critics at home who charge he is backing down in the face of Beijing’s threats of retaliation.
But by choosing to upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet of F16 A/B fighters rather than offering the newest F16 C/D models as requested by Taiwan, Obama has also tried to mitigate Beijing’s concerns and soften its response. Indeed, editorials in the West have already been quick to dismiss the expected outcry from China as simply a formality. Much thunder, little rain, they predict, arguing there’s very little the Chinese government can do.
In the short term, it may well be the case that after some measured retaliatory response, the bilateral relationship will indeed return to normal, as we witnessed last year. The United States may be tempted to believe it can have it all: jobs for its arms industry at home, a strategic presence in East Asia and political leverage over mainland China’s ties with Taiwan, all the while maintaining good political and economic ties with Beijing.
But in the long run, continued US arms sales to Taiwan will have a profoundly negative impact on how the Chinese mainland perceives US intentions. One recent online opinion poll in China showed that 84 percent of those surveyed opposed US arms sales to Taiwan, with 76 percent demanding the Chinese government adopt strong retaliatory measures; more than 50 percent supported sanctions against US enterprises. While polls like this in China's state-controlled media may have to be taken with a grain of salt, a no doubt still angry Chinese public certainly isn’t good news for the United States.
Still, the retaliatory options for the Chinese government are limited, for now at least. Its economic interdependence with the United States is deepening, with $400 billion in annual bilateral trade at stake, mostly in China’s favour. Any punishment of US firms, then, could also hurt China’s own interests.
In addition, Beijing also has to balance its opposition to the US arms sales with support for the administration of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, who Beijing hopes will prevail in next year’s poll. Ma advocates a stable and closer relationship with the mainland, while seeking US arms – it’s less about the beefing up of Taiwan’s military strength than ensuring political backing from Washington that gives Taipei leverage in its dealings with Beijing. Ma therefore remains the best choice for the mainland in terms of being able to provide a predictable and manageable cross-strait relationship.
Despite this, the Chinese leadership will be under increasing pressure to take more substantive steps in countering US arms sales. As China’s economy and military grow stronger, Beijing will have increasing leverage over Washington in the coming years. The current pattern of large scale arms sales to Taiwan, followed by vehement complaints and some response from China, followed by business as usual, can’t go on forever. It’s likely that Beijing will further strengthen its military capabilities with an eye on Taiwan at the regional level, and the US globally. If US sales continue, China will undoubtedly feel the urge to retaliate – an extremely dangerous prospect that will leave no winners.
China’s rise a reality, and the United States needs to understand that arms sales to Taiwan won’t change the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. Washington therefore requires a long term vision for how to deal with China’s rise. Beijing, for its part, needs to reassure Taiwan that it won’t use force to achieve its goal reunification.
Ultimately, Washington and Beijing need to do more to weaken the hardliners in both countries who perceive the other as an enemy, and who believe that both sides need to prepare for a war they believe is inevitable. It’s the only way forward.
Wenran Jiang is associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta and senior fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada.