Breaking US arms sales pattern

Updated: 2011-09-22 11:09

By Shih Chih-yu (

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The United States will continue selling arms to Taiwan well into the 21st century, and it is likely to expand and upgrade the sales despite Washington’s documented promise almost two decades to do exactly the opposite. The US may have its own calculations, but it is probably China’s harmonious-world approach that has made Washington’s recent actions increasingly careless.

While the US' well-established military weapons and equipment industry lies at the root of its arms sales policy, its strategic, but unwarranted, concern over China's peaceful rise must have played a role in it. Taiwan is only part of the US strategic scheme in the South China Sea and Northeast Asia. The intellectual incapacity of most Americans to move beyond the Cold War (containment) policy reveals a registered nostalgia of a passing, vulnerable superpower. Hence, the US arms sales to Taiwan is both calculative and compulsive.

Arms sales easily reproduce the perception of alliance. The US presents its arms sales to Taiwan as a commitment to Taiwan's "security" needs. Highlighting the underlining and yet embarrassing assumption that the Chinese mainland is a threat for Taiwan, the US action estranges relations between Taiwan and the mainland. In response to a perceived intent in Washington to keep Taiwan from reunifying with the mainland, Taiwan's identity politics may tilt toward the "pro-independence" elements.

The US arms, especially F-16 fighters, could presumably serve genuine military functions, given their technological superiority. In an extreme case, despite the predominant desire of Taiwan people for peace, the US could even feign the role of Taiwan's benefactor and provoke it into using the F-16s.

Besides, by continuing to sell arms to Taiwan, the US is actually trying to remind the world that Taiwan is a dependent of Washington. The US could use such provocative actions to embarrass China whenever Beijing takes a moral high ground on other global issues that Washington does not agree to.

In a sense, however, Beijing's quest for a harmonious world is partly responsible for Washington's fearless manipulation of Taiwan. It should be noted that the mainland has repeatedly declared that Taiwan comprises its core national interest, which makes the US arms sale a very critical issue. In fact, China severed military exchanges with the US to protest against the arms sale.

Americans do not doubt the mainland's determination to reunify with Taiwan, but they remain uncertain about how much Beijing is willing to invest in this endeavor. And Beijing's harmonious-world approach has reinforced their cynicism.

From China's point of view, Beijing and Washington both should be responsible for maintaining peace and security across the world. Their strategic partnership should thus be equal and mutually beneficial. To ensure such rapport, Beijing has revealed its core concerns, which specifically includes Taiwan, in the hope that Washington would refrain from interfering in these areas. And the US is expected to honor this if it wants to build a real partnership with China.

But since the US has continued to interfere in China's internal affairs, Beijing should make it clear to Washington that respecting each other's core interests is the foundation of a higher level of relationship. That's why breaking off military exchanges with the US was a step in the right direction.

The military exchanges, however, resumed on the eve of President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington in January this year. This, in a way, indicated that a harmonious visit for Hu was more important than Taiwan. Hu's acquiescent response to recalcitrant Congressmen on human rights, perhaps lend further credence to the view that Washington has been using Beijing's obsession with a harmonious world as a weapon. The US then restructured its arms sales to Taiwan changing the "proposed" F-16 C, D and Es to A and Bs as a gesture of "compromise".

Nothing substantive has changed in the US arms sales policy. Given the many other significant factors (existing and emerging) at stake between China and the US, Americans hear but generally do not appreciate China's concern over the arms sales. Some promising analysts wittily search for evidence that China is merely using the arms sales as a leverage to push for tangible gains on other agendas.

China's harmonious-world approach that first draws and yields only later on the arms sales issue makes the Americans think it is more symbolic than practical. Taiwan is and can at best be a passive participant. Taiwan politicians who struggle for votes are caught between the arms purchase, which reflects the determination to resist unification, and non-military overtures that favor peaceful development. Buying or not buying as well as what to buy is by no means Taiwan's decision. The decision is unilaterally America's.

The lack of political will in Taipei to either explore opportunities in the harmonious-world approach or move beyond reliance on symbolic arms purchase for the sake of internal legitimacy is ironically a window of opportunity because eventually Washington may have to give up the weak minded that is useless as a check on rising China. Then, a truly harmonious relation can evolve across the Straits.

The author is a professor of political science at "National" Taiwan University.