In recent years, the military balance across the Taiwan Strait — in terms of personnel, force structure, arms and developments in military doctrine — has shifted steadily in Beijing’s favor. What, if anything, should the US do to address this situation?
US policy toward Taiwan’s security is based upon a tangled web of decades-old law, joint communiques, assurances, statements and secret promises. Given the confusing and often contradictory nature of US policy, it should come as little surprise that proposals to address the military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait vary dramatically.
At one end of the spectrum are suggestions that the US overhaul longstanding policy and terminate security ties with Taiwan. In an editorial published by the Financial Times, retired admiral Bill Owens described arms sales to Taiwan as “an act that it not in our best interest” and suggested that “a thoughtful review of this outdated legislation [the Taiwan Relations Act or TRA] is warranted.”
Former US diplomat Charles Freeman has argued that the TRA compels US decision-makers to “confront the necessity to choose between the self-imposed shackles of longstanding policy and the imperatives of our long-term strategic interests.” An article in Foreign Affairs also suggested that “the US should consider backing away from its commitments to Taiwan.”
Sponsoring legislation to amend or revoke the TRA is not the answer to the predicament now confronting Washington. If adopted, this policy would undermine the US’ credibility and ignite a firestorm in the US Congress. Moreover, although the prospects of a cross-strait conflict appear miniscule, cutting US military support might tempt Beijing to assume greater risks when dealing with Taiwan. Such a move may also prompt Taipei to accelerate the development of its own ballistic missiles. Even the long-dormant program to develop weapons of mass destruction might be revived. At the opposite end of the spectrum are proposals to provide Taiwan almost with a carte blanche for procurement of US arms.
Some have been pushing for the Taiwan Policy Act. It calls for the sale of F-16C/D warplanes (in addition to the F-16A/B upgrade), surface-to-air missiles, vertical and short take-off and landing (V/STOL) combat aircraft, submarines, mines, anti-ship cruise missiles, GPS-guided short-range rockets, unmanned air vehicles, radar and jamming equipment. Although Aegis warships are not included in the TPA, they might be included in similar legislation.
Like proposals to “abandon” Taiwan, this scheme is preposterous. First, it is questionable whether Taiwan can afford to purchase the US equipment offered in 2010 and last year. So, how can one reasonably assume Taipei will purchase submarines and V/STOL combat aircraft?
Second, where will the submarines and V/STOL aircraft come from? The US stopped manufacturing diesel submarines decades ago and it will probably be a decade before the problem-plagued Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighters are available for export.
Third, any new F-16s would be sitting ducks for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) missiles and runways would be rendered inoperable in a matter of seconds (highways are poor substitutes).
Fourth, it is a matter of speculation as to whether Taipei really wants to acquire these weapons. As one Taiwanese academic said: “[President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九)] government is not really serious about procuring more defensive weapons from the US because he [Ma] doesn’t want to irritate the PRC [People’s Republic of China].”