US-Taiwan Arms Deal Reflective Of Greater Asia Security Concerns

Last week, the State Department approved an approximately $2.2 billion arms deal with Taiwan, including 108 General Dynamics M1A2T Abrams tanks and 250 Stinger missiles manufactured by Raytheon. The Chinese Foreign Ministry announced Monday that the Chinese government and Chinese companies would impose sanctions (the details of which remain unclear) on US firms selling arms to Taiwan. Neither Raytheon nor General Dynamics has commented on the ongoing situation. The US Congress has one month to object to the deal, but The Guardian reports they are unlikely to do so. The Chinese Communist Party’s publication, People’s Daily, cited in an article several US companies that could face sanctions, including Honeywell, Inc. and Gulfstream Aerospace. Both companies have a significant market share in China. Similar sanction threats by China over arms deals came in 2010 and 2015, but no clear or extensive actions were taken.

Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, cited international law violations and threats to China’s national security and sovereignty: “We have repeatedly emphasized to the US to fully understand the extremely sensitive and damaging nature of their decision to sell arms to Taiwan, and abide by the One China principle.” In accordance with Beijing’s “One China” policy, the US maintains formal diplomatic relations with Beijing but has engaged in unofficial relations with self-ruled, democratic Taiwan for decades.  Since 1979, however, the US has been required by law to assist Taiwan in defense and is its main arms supplier to this day.

Earlier this year, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen cited growing pressure from China as reason to boost defense assets.  Taiwan’s current tank force is increasingly obsolete, and its troops would be unable to sustain China’s troop numbers or firepower if invaded. Weapons the US agreed to provide – Abrams tanks and anti-aircraft missiles – would bring Taiwan the capability to destroy Chinese armor and warplanes. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), part of the US Department of Defense and provider of technical and financial military assistance to US allies, said the arms would not change the “basic military balance in the region.” However, the tank sale would “contribute to the modernization of the recipient’s main battle tank fleet, enhancing its ability to meet current and future regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense.”

The arms sale resulted in the Taiwan President’s “sincere gratitude” and received a commitment from Chang Tun-han, spokesman for the Taiwan President: “Taiwan will speed up investment on defense and continue to deepen security ties with the United States and countries with similar ideas.”

This transaction comes at a time when tensions between China and the US run high; tit-for-tat tariffs have escalated into a trade war between the rival nations in recent months. Trade war aside, the US welcomed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen to Washington earlier last week, an action China harshly rebuked.

According to The Wall Street Journal, senior US officials have signaled there may not be an end in sight to the trade war. Kelsey Broderick, a China adviser at the Eurasia Group, told reporters, “While Beijing still desires a trade deal, it is not so critical to [President] Xi that he is willing to bend on sensitive issues […] Trump’s tariff hikes and especially the U.S. export ban on Huawei has heightened nationalist sentiment in China and made Beijing more skeptical that a deal will bring a lasting ebb in tensions.” As security concerns ramp up, fueled in part by the arms deal, US-China trade negotiations and diplomatic ties remain fragile.  Whether China pursues its sanctions threat will be telling, as the US seems unlikely to back down for the time being. If China proceeds, the US must make every effort to de-escalate military threats and could potentially delay or reduce arms delivery to Taiwan. Because of Taiwan’s increasingly antiquated defense assets, it cannot afford to fend off an invasion; the US would do well to ease tariffs and relieve trade tensions with China, which only sour the two countries’ diplomatic relationship.

China’s rise to global prominence renders it a formidable adversary should military conflict commence. Decades-old foreign policy and intertwined economic markets make renegotiation of defense agreements particularly challenging. Shirley Kan, an Asia security expert in the Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade division of the Congressional Research Service has pointed to partly-failed arms deals during the Bush Administration as fodder for future defense disputes. President Bush, who served as US President between 2000-2008, unilaterally halved the proposed arms sale to $6.5 billion, dramatically reducing helicopter, submarine, and missile defense capabilities for the Taiwan military.   According to Kan, the foundation of the US-Taiwan relationship must be reexamined. To her point, Kan referenced a 2006 Congressional testimony by Admiral William J. Fallon, who emphasized that despite US commitments to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression, Taiwan remains responsible for revitalizing and reinvesting in its own defense capabilities and communicating clearly its military needs.

The Truman Center for National Policy (CNP), a US membership organization of civilian, veteran, and professional policy experts, established positions reflecting the views of Ms. Kan and re-iterated reformation of US-Taiwan foreign relations. The CNP advocates: 1) Continuity in both US efforts to cultivate peaceful China-Taiwan relations and protection for Taiwan self-defense, 2) Redeveloping US goals in the Taiwan Strait, and 3) Taiwan’s concerted effort in bolstering its air, sea, and anti-blockade defenses, as well as strengthening its army. Taiwan’s continued reliance on the US for military support need not vanish; but, given contemporary trade conflicts and increasingly authoritarian policies by the PRC, mainstream reliance on the US is insufficient. Taiwan must balance strengthening its own military capacity with careful diplomatic approaches to reduce Chinese aggression. The US may play a role in providing defense provisions, as it is legally required to do, but the lack of an official treaty between the democratic nations necessitates additional de-escalation efforts.

At present, there are steps both the US and Taiwan can take to curb future threats. US trade disputes with China put Taiwan further at risk and have aggravated an already-tense foreign relationship. If the US were to diplomatically resolve trade disputes, it might have greater leverage when deterring Chinese aggression towards Taiwan. If the US-China relationship is one China values more highly, it might be less inclined to threaten military force. Moreover, given that US law surrounding the unique relationship between the US and China is approximately 40 years old, it would do both legislatures well to re- establish a 21st century commitment resting on modern defense and military realities. Such a document need not be privy to the US and Taiwan alone; rather, it may be useful to include representation from the PRC to establish clear lines of communication and recognition of political and economic interests. While not directly involved in the arms sale conflict, nations around the world, particularly US allies, ought to take stronger positions with regard to Chinese military hostility. France, for example, which supplements arms sales to Taiwan, has remained largely absent in recent weeks’ arms disputes. Greater international pressure may deter the PRC from invoking sanctions or military force.

In accordance with CNP recommendations and broader self-sufficiency ideals, Taiwan would do well to develop strategies for security independence, especially in the realm of weapons and defense capabilities. Domestic-driven investment in a more robust military and self-defense infrastructure may be seen as less of a security threat to China than a US-supplied weapon influx. Above all, neither Taiwan nor the US can afford to cut China off from diplomatic talks, and every effort must be made to seek non-violent remedies to territory disputes and trade turmoil.

Isabelle Aboaf