U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan a Sore Point in U.S.-China Relations

Memo #105

By Wenran Jiang – wenran.jiang [at] ualberta.ca

The Obama administration’s decision to sell arms to Taiwan clouds bilateral relations with China. The timing is not ideal. Global economic recovery is volatile and tensions are increasing in the South China Sea. Next year, there will be a leadership transition in China and the U.S. will hold its presidential election.

By providing one of the largest deals in the history of U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, the White House hopes to satisfy Taiwan’s demand for continuous U.S. political and military support. At home, President Obama is fending off critics who claim that he is backing down in the face of Beijing’s threat of retaliation. But by choosing to upgrade Taiwan’s existing fleet of F-16 A/B fighters rather than sending the newest F-16 C/D models as requested by Taiwan, President Obama is trying to mitigate Beijing’s concerns and soften its reaction.

Pundits in the West see a lot of thunder, but little rain, in the Chinese reaction. In the short term, it may well be the case that after some measured retaliatory actions from Beijing, the bilateral relationship will return to normal, as we witnessed last year. The U.S. may think it can manage it all: profits and jobs for its arms industry, a strategic presence in East Asia, political leverage on Beijing-Taiwan relations, and good political and economic ties with China.

But in the long run, the continuous U.S. arms sales to Taiwan will have a profound negative impact on how the Chinese mainland perceives U.S. intentions. These weapons will not change the basic fact that the Chinese mainland holds overwhelming military superiority over Taiwan. Washington needs long term strategic thinking and vision on how to deal with China’s rise. If it wants the U.S. to stop supplying arms to the island, Beijing needs to do its own part by assuring Taiwan that it would not use force to achieve its goals of reunification.

The hardliners in both countries perceive each other as enemies and say that war between China and the U.S. is inevitable. The best approach for both Washington and Beijing is to weaken these forces rather than strengthening them.

Wenran Jiang – Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta and senior fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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  • Weaken the Hardliners, The New York Times, September 2011. (Wenran Jiang’s entry to the above debate).

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