U.S. arms sales remain a constant source of tension in Washington’s relationship with Beijing. In September, the Obama administration announced the latest round of sales, with a total value of $5.9 billion. In response to the upgrades for Taiwan’s existing F-16A/B fighters, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke and warned that “the wrongdoing by the U.S. side will inevitably undermine bilateral relations as well as exchanges and cooperation in military and security areas.”
It has become a familiar ritual and, compared to past announcements, the Chinese reaction could be even considered relatively restrained. This time, there was no talk of sanctions against U.S. arms companies or the disruption of vital ties between the two sides’ militaries.
One reason for Beijing’s muted response was the fact that the latest U.S. arms package included neither a submarine design program, nor the delivery of new F-16C/D fighters for Taiwan’s air force. This seems to have placated the Chinese leadership, as the military balance in the Taiwan Strait continues to shift strongly (and probably irreversibly) in Beijing’s favor.
In the absence of domestic development and production capacities, Taipei remains highly dependent on the United States for upgrading its military forces. This is clear especially in light of China’s recent rapid advances in defense modernization, symbolized for instance by the launch of the first Chinese aircraft carrier in August 2011. The U.S., which is required to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, continues to be by farTaipei’s most important source of modern military technologies.
In contrast, the European Union has been only a minor source of military technologies for Taiwan. EU arms sales to Taiwan have largely dried up since 1993, when the sale of French Mirage fighter jets prompted Beijing to close the French consulate in Guangzhou.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) figures, the U.S. accounted for around $3.1 billion of the $3.3 billion of Taiwanese arms imports between 2000 and 2010, bringing it to around 94 percent. By comparison, the level of European arms transfers is tiny. Arms sales by EU member states, namely France and Germany, only accounted for $192 million, less than 6 percent of Taiwanese arms imports in the same period. This is only a fraction the around $1.6 billion of European arms transfers to China that took place in the same decade (and despite an EU arms embargo that has been in place since 1989). Recent European arms sales include six French Thales ATAS sonars for the Taiwanese Navy’s Cheng Kung-class frigates, delivered between 1995 and 2004, and around 42 German MTU-4000 diesel engines for the Taiwanese navy’s new stealthy 170-ton Kuang HuaVI (KH-6) guided-missile patrol boats, delivered between 2009 and 2010.
Recent media reports in Hong Kong and Taiwan have suggested that Germany might consider providing four Type 214 diesel-electric submarines to replace the Taiwanese Navy’s dinosaur fleet of submarines. Like similar earlier reports, they’ve been rejected by the foreign ministries of both countries as rumors. According to German diplomats, Berlin isn’t only anxious to avoid angering Beijing, but also to uphold the arms embargo against China, which, according to the official “One China” definition, includes Taiwan as well. Other EU governments share these views.
Chinese protests on EU arms sales to Taiwan are usually low-key for two reasons: First, because the overall level of arms transfers to Taiwan remains low and excludes any prominent, lethal weapon systems, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon or the aforementioned German submarines. On the other hand, open Chinese pressure on this issue would further hinder Beijing’s efforts to get the EU arms embargo lifted. And it would raise additional questions with regard to Beijing’s commitment to a peaceful settlement of Taiwan’s future status. Berlin, for instance, has explicitly tied its support for lifting the arms embargo to a sustainable and irreversible improvement in Beijing’s ties with Taiwan.
Ultimately, EU support for Taipei will remain limited to the diplomatic arena, and more specifically to European support for Taiwanese observer status in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change and the International Civil Aviation Organization.
The fact is that Taipei looks destined to continue to rely almost exclusively on Washington for support in modernizing itsarmed forces.
Oliver Bräuner is a Researcher in the China and Global Security Program of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). His research focuses on cross-Strait relations, EU-China relations and Chinese defense policy.