Recent weeks Have seen a lot of ink spilled on the US arms “freeze” on Taiwan. Yet Washington not only has failed to provide a clear answer on the matter, but its diverse agencies have also sent contradictory messages.
While the US Department of State denies there is a freeze in place, others — such as the commander of US Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating — for all intents and purposes have confirmed the existence of the policy. There were even rumors, later discarded, that it was the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that had requested the freeze, lest the conclusion of the arms transaction scuttle its plans to improve relations across the Taiwan Strait.
Members of the US Congress, meanwhile, have drafted letters to US President George W. Bush, pressing him to provide Taiwan with the weapons included in the package, while former deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz said in Taipei recently that Bush is a man who keeps his commitments and that he would deliver before his term ends.
While the region waits to see how this plays out, academics have sought to determine the rationale behind the freeze — if such is indeed Washington’s policy. Some have argued that the Bush administration implemented the policy to give the KMT and its counterparts in Beijing enough space to move toward a diplomatic rapprochement, while others have stated that the US is waiting for the Beijing Olympic Games to end before finalizing the agreement.
Fingers have been pointed at the former Democratic Progressive Party government for “alienating” Washington and at the KMT-dominated legislature for blocking the appropriations bill for so long that by the time the budget was unlocked, Washington may have changed its mind.
In reality, however, an arms freeze could have less to do with diplomatic idiosyncrasies and more with the US’ grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. By looking at how, since before the end of World War II, Washington has sought to prevent the emergence of multipolarity and, as a corollary, created the need for a US military presence in core and outlying areas of strategic interest, Washington’s decision could begin to make more sense.
As Christopher Layne writes in The Illusion of Peace: “If any of the major powers in Europe and East Asia acquire the military capabilities to defend themselves unaided by the United States, their neighbors will feel threatened, latent ‘security dilemmas’ will resurface, and a cycle of rising tensions and arms races (possibly including nuclear proliferation) will be triggered.”
In light of China’s ongoing modernization of its military forces — with a budget estimated at anywhere between US$50 billion and US$79 billion and a 17.6 percent increase this year — added to acquisitions that, if they continue apace, could soon make area denial a reality and thus threaten US military forces in the region, Washington may be loath to feed Layne’s “security dilemma” by providing Taiwan with more modern military technology, which could only encourage Beijing to spend even more on its armed forces.
And what goes on in Asia cannot be decoupled from what is going on elsewhere.
There is every indication, regardless of who wins the US presidential election in November, that the Middle East will continue to tie up the core of US military forces for years to come. Consequently, the US has little advantage in enacting policies — such as arms sales to Taiwan — that would spark an arms race in East Asia and make it likelier that China or Japan will become increasingly nationalistic and emerge as regional poles, as this would put US military strength at a relative disadvantage unless it were committed and could afford to bolster its forces in East Asia and the Middle East simultaneously.