Nothing causes greater discord in Sino-US relations than the status of Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China. However, the best way to maintain peace between Washington and Beijing may be for the US to continue selling weapons to Taiwan. Once ruled by Imperial China — but never Communist China — the Taiwanese have created a vibrant democracy. Yet their small nation risks being crushed by Bejing’s embrace.
During the Cold War, the two Chinas were bitterly at odds. As the People’s Republic of China (PRC) grew economically and moderated politically, it surged past Taipei on the international stage. Today the PRC is determined to reassert control over what it views as a renegade province.
Washington has promised to sell Taiwan weapons for its defense. Last year, the US announced a US$6.4 billion arms package. The Sino-US relationship will likely be the world’s most important bilateral connection this century. The two nations are tightly linked economically and they share many other interests — stability in East Asia, freedom of the seas, an open global economy and cooperative international institutions. Perhaps the most important objective for the existing superpower and the potential superpower is to avoid conflict. The PRC has demonstrated little interest in overseas military expansion or attacking the US. Economic competition between the two is growing in Asia, Africa and even South America, but Washington’s best response would be to liberalize the US economy, not deploy the US navy.
However, a clash is possible in East Asia. Today, the US dominates the region, even along China’s border, but the PRC is building deterrent forces, particularly missiles and submarines capable of sinking US aircraft carriers. The PRC poses no threat to the US homeland. However, Beijing doesn’t want the US to be able to threaten its homeland. Imagine if the Chinese navy were patrolling coasts right off the US, prepared to intervene in, say, Washington’s struggle with Hawaiian secessionists.
Since it is far cheaper to build defensive than offensive weapons, the US could bankrupt itself buying additional platforms to maintain its ability to attack China. Nevertheless, Washington should not abandon Taiwan. The nation is entitled to decide its own destiny. Certainly Beijing is not justified in attempting to coerce the Taiwanese people.
The best solution would be a negotiated settlement. The two states and peoples have drawn steadily closer. However, the PRC will make itself politically attractive only when it accepts a free society and a liberalized economy.
In the meantime, the US should authorize arms sales that enable Taiwan to maintain a military deterrent just as China is building a deterrent to the US. Taipei should not “try to match the PRC ship for ship, plane for plane, or missile for missile,” the Washington-based Taiwan Policy Working Group has said. Rather, Taipei should build a small, but deadly force capable of exacting a high price from any attackers.
Last year’s weapons package included Harpoon and Patriot missiles, mine-detection ships, Blackhawk helicopters and communications equipment. Washington put off any decision on advanced F-16s and diesel-electric submarines, but Taiwan is now pressing for the fighters.
The administration of US President Barack Obama has reportedly decided to refuse to supply the most advanced aircraft because China might retaliate diplomatically. However, empowering Taiwan is worth risking tense relations with the PRC. After all, arms sales do not put the US and China closer to a path to war. Rather, they create a disincentive for Beijing to consider war as an option.