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Arms Sales and the Future of U.S.-Taiwan-China Relations

The outgoing Bush Administration made an 11th hour decision to notify the
U.S. Congress on October 3—a day before Congress went into recess ahead
of the groundbreaking November presidential election in the United
States—that a raft of arms and weapons systems, which have been
effectively frozen since December 2007, will be released for Taiwan. The
passage of the arms package provided a temporary reprieve for Taiwanese
President Ma Ying-jeou, whose approval rating since assuming office in
May has plummeted to 23.6 percent in October (Global View, November
2008). The items released by the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation
Agency, at the value of $6.4 billion, includes: 182 Javelin anti-tank
missile; 30 Apache helicopters; four PAC-3 anti-missile batteries; 32
submarine-launched Harpoon missiles; and four E-2T radar plane upgrades.
But more noticeable than the items released is the absence of the first
phase of 8 diesel-powered submarines, Black Hawk helicopters, and two
additional PAC-3 batteries that had been originally sought (United Daily
News [Taiwan], October 5, 2008; Defense News, October 6). Taipei also
requested 66 F-16 C/D jet fighters to add to its current inventory, but
the Bush Administration has not received the letter of request for the
reason that it would only process the above-mentioned package at the
current stage.

The passage of the arms package was received with a
sigh of relief in Taipei, which is concerned about the island’s
strained relations with the United States,and, had a decision lapsed to
the next U.S. president, weary that the package would be approved at
all. As expected, Beijing complained bitterly and suspended unspecified
military exchange programs with the United States (United Daily News,
October 8, 2008), but overall the sale did not upset Sino-U.S.
relations, nor did it interrupt the momentum of reconciliatory gestures
between the Kuomintang (KMT), the ruling party on Taiwan, and the
Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, the scaling-down of the arms
package signifies subtle changes in the geopolitical landscape in East
Asia, where the shifting center of gravity may affect the long-term
interests of the United States and its relations with the nations in the
region.

Arms Sale and Taiwan’s Defense

Although the items
approved only represent a fraction of Taiwan’s request and the value is
half of what was originally sought, the package nonetheless improves
Taiwan’s defense capability and reduces Taiwan’s widening military
disparity vis-à-vis China. However, China’s military is rapidly
modernizing, with its military defense budget has increased by double
digit for more than 15 years while Taiwan’s defense budget has remained
low. Therefore, the arms package will be unable to offset the strategic
changes in the depth projection of China’s military in the region and
encirclement of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Among Taiwan’s most cited threats
is the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) deployment of more than
1,000-1,400 short-ranged ballistic missiles (SRBM), which have increased
at the rate of 100 per year since 2001. These missiles have been aimed
at Taiwan from six missile bases in Lepin, Santow, Fuzhou, Longtien,
Huian, and Zhangzhou, spanning three southeastern coastal provinces of
Jiangxi, Zhejiang, and Fujian [1] (Liberty Times [Taiwan], March 30,
2008). In addition, China has also acquired an estimated 50 advanced
submarines, which is more than what military analysts state the PLA
needs to blockade the Taiwan Strait. The PLA has also engaged in
military exercises and deployments designed to sharpen its defensive
capabilities so that even with limited offensive capabilities, China
would be able to subdue Taiwan’s defenses in a limited amount of time by
denying the access of other maritime powers that may come to Taiwan’s
defense [2]. Furthermore, China has—in recent years—ratcheted up its
computer-hacking activities against the Taiwanese government’s national
security-related agencies and has stolen countless sensitive materials
(United Daily News, April 8, 2007), so much so that some Taiwanese
security officials describe that a “silent war” has already begun.

Friction
between the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the CCP in the
Taiwan Strait was to be expected for two parties whose visions for
Taiwan and its relationship with China are diametrically opposed. That
the result of Taiwan’s presidential election on March 22 was embraced by
the embattled U.S. leadership came as no surprise. The KMT’s Ma
Ying-jeou appears more conciliatory toward China than his predecessor,
Chen Shui-bian of the DPP. Chen stoked tensions in cross-Strait
relations prior to the election by advocating that Taiwan join the
United Nations as a new member, promoted a national referendum on the
issue during the recent presidential election. These tensions have since
eased following President Ma’s inauguration. Bush Administration
officials—in pubic and in private—conveyed satisfaction to see Taiwan’s
KMT government and the CCP re-engaged in cross-Strait dialogue,
particularly the resumption of the Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF) –
Association for the Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) channel,
severed by the CCP after former President Lee Teng-hui stated in a major
policy speech in 1999 that Taiwan-China relations are “special
state-to-state relations.”

Cross-Strait Politics and China’s Legal Warfare against Taiwan

From
November 3 to 7, the head of ARATS, Chen Yunlin, serving as China’s
special envoy to Taiwan, participated in an unprecedented visit to
Taiwan to negotiate cross-Strait aviation, shipping, and food safety
agreements. Chen Yunlin’s visit has attracted international attention on
the warming relations between a democratic Taiwan and an authoritarian
China, and also on a deepening divide in Taiwanese society.

A
closer examination of ongoing cross-Strait shuttle diplomacy between the
KMT and CCP, and public announcements made by President Ma raises
legitimate questions about whether the current trend is in Taiwan’s
national interest or for that matter U.S. long-term security interest.

The
issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty has always been the focal point of
cross-Strait tension, since the PRC claims that Taiwan is a part of
China under its interpretation of the “one-China principle.” The Chinese
government has engaged in what some analysts call a diplomatic
“full-court press,” using a carrot and stick strategy in the form of
financial and monetary incentives, to legalize the “one-China principle”
in major international organizations and thereby legitimize its claim
of sovereignty over Taiwan (Javno, November 16, 2007).

The first
such step came in May 2005, when the Chinese government signed a
memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the World Health Organization
(WHO) Secretariat requiring the WHO to seek Chinese approval before
Taiwan, under the name “Taiwan, China,” could participate in any
WHO-related activities. The second came in the United Nations, which in
March 28, 2007, issued a letter from the Secretariat to Nauru stating
that, in compliance with the 1972 UN General Assembly Resolution 2758,
“the United Nations considers Taiwan for all purposes to be an integral
part of the People’s Republic of China.” The third incident was with the
OIE (World Organization of Animal Health). In May 2007, Beijing
attempted to pass a resolution “recognizing that there is only one China
in the world and the government of the People’s Republic of China is
the sole legal government representing the whole of China which includes
Taiwan,” changing Taiwan’s membership into “non-sovereign regional
member,” and using “Taiwan, China” or “Taipei, China” as Taiwan’s
official title in this organization.

As these three examples
demonstrate, the “one-China principle” has been used by the PRC as a
means of waging its “legal warfare” to incorporate Taiwan and to
accomplish its bottom-line goal of de jure unification, as explicitly
stated by its declared intent to use military force if necessary under
the “anti-secession law” of 2005 to “reunify” Taiwan. The examples also
illustrate how, if Taipei agrees to the “one-China principle,” it may be
interpreted as accepting China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan.
Under such pretexts, the government under the DPP had to avoid and even
repel the “one-China principle” as the precondition for the resumption
of cross-Strait talks. The DPP did this by seeking international support
for its counter-position, which led to the standoff in cross-Strait
negotiations and showed the world that the “one-China principle”
effectively became a non-starter.

These efforts notwithstanding,
Ma Ying-jeou in his inaugural address reversed the previous
administration’s position and accepted the so-called “1992 consensus” as
the foundation for cross-Strait reconciliation in spite of the fact
that the PRC officially stated that the “1992 consensus” was a consensus
realizing (ti-xien) the “one-China principle.” In several private
meetings with foreign visitors, Ma even went on to say that he accepted
the one-China principle with or without any elaboration on what he meant
by it. In addition, Ma stated in September during an interview with a
Mexican journal that the relations between Taiwan and China are
“non-state to state special relations,” and his spokesperson Wang Yuchi
further qualified that statement of policy by saying that relations
should be characterized as “region to region” (diqu dui diqu) relations
(September 3, 2008, news release, www.president.gov.tw). In the effort
to participate in international organizations, Ma announced that there
is no better title for Taiwan other than “Chinese Taipei” (United Daily
News, April 5, 2008). During the August/September effort to participate
in the United Nations, the KMT government gave up on the membership
drive and pursued only “meaningful participation” in UN-affiliated
organizations. Even so, the Chinese Ambassador to the UN, Wang
Guang-yia, stated that Taiwan was not qualified to participate in major
international organizations, and Taiwan’s participation in the WHO had
to follow the MOU signed between the Chinese government and the WHO
Secretariat (Liberty Times, August 28, 2008). The Ma administration made
no attempt to repudiate the Chinese claim, and Ma’s spokesperson stated
that it was not a “non-goodwill” (Liberty Times, August 29, 2008). In
addition, when in the negotiations for cross-Strait chartered flights
the Ma administration decided to open up six domestic airports in
addition to two international airports, the decision apparently fell
into the Chinese claim that the cross-Strait flights are domestic
flights. In short, the official statements and policy actions by the KMT
government on relations between the two sides of the Strait thus put
Taiwan within the description of the “one-China principle,” with Taiwan
being part of China.

Inner Politics and Arms Sales

In
another interview by India and Global Affairs, Ma stated that he wanted
to pursue full economic normalization with China, and that he also
wanted to reach a peace agreement within his term (Liberty Times,
October 18, 2008). If Ma’s concept on the relations between Taiwan and
China falls within the description of the “one-China principle,” a full
economic normalization will mean an arrangement similar to the Closer
Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between Hong Kong and China. A
peace agreement between Taiwan and China within the timetable of his
four-year term may necessitate that the United States prepare for an
eventual termination of arms sales to and security cooperation with
Taiwan. Ma’s statements may be welcomed by the international community
as gestures toward peace, but it is actually putting Taiwan’s security
in jeopardy. If Taiwan were to sign a peace agreement under the KMT
where the conditions are defined by the KMT and CCP,  the resulting
equation, influenced by a much more powerful China at the other end of
the negotiating table, may forfeit Taiwan’s freedom to repudiate China’s
claim over Taiwan. Taiwan may be moving dangerously too close to the
PRC and may not be able to maintain its current de facto independent
status any longer.

The United States has for decades held a
policy of refuting the PRC’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan, as stated
in the “six assurances” provided by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 and
other private communications with Taiwan (Fredrick Chien Memoir, vol.
2, 2005, 215-6). When China manipulated the UN Secretariat to issue a
letter in March 2007, which stated that Taiwan is considered by the UN
an integral part of the PRC, the United States protested to the UN
Secretariat, arguing that such a declaration is against U.S. policy
(Liberty Times, September 6, 2007). But if Taiwan itself accepts
one-China principle, the foundation for this U.S. policy may be
jeopardized. In other words, Ma’s effort of reconciliation is a
short-term relief for the United States at a time when it is not capable
of addressing simultaneous international conflicts. However, such
efforts may prove to be against U.S. long-term interests, especially if
the United States continues to view China’s rapid military modernization
with suspicion.

Taiwan’s domestic politics are severely divided
over the course of the government’s ongoing rapprochement with China.
President Ma has not made any efforts to seek domestic reconciliation or
attempt to communicate with the opposition over his intentions on
cross-Strait policy. In fact, Ma’s statements and actions angered many
people who believe that Taiwan should keep China at arm’s length. Taiwan
appears to be more divided than before in the months since Ma’s
inauguration, as evidenced by several large-scale,
anti-government/anti-China demonstrations. Consequently, Taiwan’s status
has been relatively weakened in facing the subtle and not so subtle
threats from authoritarian China. A divided and weakened Taiwan severely
threatens Taiwan’s national security, and is, by extension, not in the
interests of the United States or Japan, its key ally in East Asia. All
interested parties should therefore encourage the KMT to engage the
opposition DPP in formulating its policy across the Taiwan Strait. 

Conclusion

The
changes occurring within the strategic landscape of East Asia are quite
subtle indeed. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are one of the most important
means for the United States to demonstrate its security commitment to
its key allies and ensure peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. In
order for the United States to continue to maintain peace and stability
in the region, the United States has long held the position, as
prescribed by the Taiwan Relations Act, that arms sales to Taiwan are
evaluated on the merit of Taiwan’s defense needs, not political
judgments or as a result of consultations with the PRC. However, the
U.S. decision to scale down the volume of weapons that had already been
promised may make Taiwan feel uncomfortable about the U.S. commitment at
a time when Taiwan needs a strong defense in order to ward off China’s
possible aggression. A continued U.S. commitment is also integral in
permitting Taiwan to resist China’s political pressure, however remote
it may seem, and most importantly enable Taiwan to negotiate with China
from a position of strength. The unfinished issue of arms sales to
Taiwan thus becomes another pressing matter for the new U.S.
administration to address in order to safeguard American interests in
reinforcing peace and stability in East Asia.