The belief that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan stand in the way of good relations between Washington and Beijing has been repeated so often over the decades that it has acquired a status approaching that of a religious text. A new report by the EastWest Institute proposes a way to mitigate the irritants, but ultimately fails to address the root cause of the problem.
It should be stated from the onset that any effort aimed at resolving the differences that have long plagued relations between Taiwan, China and the U.S., which if mishandled could quickly descend into a war that nobody wants, deserves our attention. Released last week, Threading the Needle: Proposals for U.S. and Chinese Actions on Arms Sales to Taiwan, submits a plan of action that, it promises, would lead to a “new status quo on the issue [of arms sales] that better serves the interests of all three parties.”
The 88-page report, for which American, Chinese and Taiwanese experts were consulted, argues that it is possible for the U.S. to continue adhering to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, the Six Assurances to Taiwan and the 1982 Joint Communiqué with China while concurrently addressing the “frictions” that are ostensibly created by U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the self-ruled nation of 23 million people that China regards as a “core interest” and an indivisible part of its territory awaiting “reunification.”
To do so, the authors propose that the U.S. and China should take voluntary, incremental and reversible steps to “reduce tensions and build confidence with each other and across the Taiwan Strait.”
On the U.S. side, Washington would “recalibrate” its arms sales to Taiwan by capping annual deliveries of defensive weaponry to Taiwan at US$941 million (in inflation-adjusted 2012 dollars); and “unbundle” sale notifications to Congress, thus making them regular, predictable, and subject to a normalized schedule. (As one analyst pointed out in a personal exchange, the report does not clarify whether weapons systems assembled in Taiwan would qualify as delivered articles, a potential loophole.)
In return, China would demonstrate its commitment to a “peaceful solution to the Taiwan question” by “unilaterally, voluntarily and verifiably …maintain[ing] all missiles in garrison … redeploy[ing] one of the current five short-range ballistic missile brigades under the [Second Artillery Corps’] 52nd Base further inland and out of range of Taiwan; and dismantl[ing] the physical infrastructure of that brigade, including but not limited to launchers, missile depots, rail and road facilities.”
Beijing would also be called upon to be more transparent about its arsenal — a mix of approximately 1,600 short- and medium-range ballistic missile — facing Taiwan by providing more information in authoritative publications, such as white papers.
Laudable though the intent might be, the report quickly runs into difficulties by turning its attention almost entirely to China’s missile force, while leaving out every other aspect of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) arsenal that would play a role in a Taiwan contingency, including an air force and navy that in the past decade have undergone a major transformation both quantitatively and qualitatively. Inexplicably, the report also eschews a cap on Russian arms sales to China, which have continued to grow over the years and have played a significant role in shifting the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait firmly in Beijing’s favor.
Furthermore, it is doubtful that dismantling a single missile brigade would have a substantial beneficial impact on Taiwan’s vulnerability to a missile attack, especially as China has been replacing older short-range Dong Feng 11 (DF-11) missiles with more accurate variants and supplementing those with medium-range DF-15s and DF-16s which, though deployed further inland, are still well capable of hitting Taiwan. To this we add the PLA’s growing land, sea and air-launched cruise missile capabilities.
Ultimately, the report’s greatest flaw is that it seeks to remedy a symptom — U.S. arms sales as an “irritant” — rather than the root cause, which is the incompatibility of the political systems that prevail in Taiwan and China. The greatest cause of friction is not the delivery of advanced defensive technology to democratic Taiwan, but rather the implicit recognition of statehood that stems from foreign military sales by the U.S. government to Taiwan. One could argue that Washington would not be selling weapons to Taiwan if it agreed, as the report purports and Beijing adamantly maintains, that Taiwan is merely a province of China.
The real cause of longstanding frictions between Washington and Beijing is the continued threat of force by China against a nation that, despite all the progress that has been made in recent years in normalizing cross-strait relations, is increasingly conscious of its distinct identity, way of life, and political system. It is the hardening of nationalistic policies under President Xi Jinping and the visibly more repressive measures adopted by the Chinese Communist Party to suppress dissent and free speech within China, all of which is becoming clearer to Taiwanese as the scope and frequency of contact between the two peoples increases.
In the end, despite its attempt to propose policy alternatives, the report’s only true achievement is to reinforce the illusion that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are the principal cause of friction in the triangular relationship, or an impediment to “peacefully” resolving the Taiwan “question” once and for all.