The US’ continued support for Taiwan, as exemplified by recent multibillion dollar arms sales packages, has proved to be a constant source of tension between China and the US. Differing perceptions about this issue hold the potential to put the two nations on a collision course.
The US employs a number of arguments to justify continued security links with Taiwan.
First, officials emphasize that the US must comply with the law (the Taiwan Relations Act) and ensure that Taiwan possesses a “sufficient self-defense capability.” In other words, they justify arms sales to Taiwan by asserting that Washington has a legal obligation to sell the weapons.
Second, US authorities say that advanced sales are required to counter China’s extraordinary military build-up.
As one US Department of Defense official observed, despite the improvement in cross-strait ties: “China’s military shows no sign of slowing its efforts to prepare for Taiwan Strait contingencies.”
Third, Taiwan’s democratization has stiffened US resolve to protect it. Many view the island as a model to other countries — including the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Fourth, numerous officials and lawmakers share the belief that US arms sales to Taiwan promote cross-strait reconciliation and discussion. According to this view, arms sales serve to increase the costs of Chinese use of force and enable Taipei to negotiate with Beijing with a greater degree of confidence.
Fifth, the US’ continued military support for Taiwan has long served as visible evidence that the US stands by its friends and honors its commitments. A failure by the US to abide by its security commitments could weaken US credibility with regional allies.
Sixth, officials do not consider an escalation in US arms transfers to Taiwan as a violation of the 1982 US-China Joint Communique, an agreement that committed the US to reducing arms sales to Taiwan.
This is because Beijing has deployed more than 1,400 ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan, thereby violating its 1982 promise to seek “peaceful reunification.”
There are other considerations that could conceivably influence US policy. Some lawmakers view arms sales as a “stimulus plan” for US workers. Economic considerations were emphasized in congressional petitions submitted to the president calling for the approval of the F-16C/D warplane sale.
And fringe groups outside government view Taiwan as a strategic asset to the US — an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” that will help the US “contain” China when needed.
China sees things differently. For a start, Beijing says that arms transfers constitute interference in China’s internal affairs and represent a threat to the nation’s sovereignty.
Second, PRC authorities say that US arms sales harm the prospects for the peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue by providing Taipei with no incentive to agree to unification.
Third, Beijing complains that arms sales not only reduce incentives for Taiwan to negotiate, but also embolden those who push for de jure independence from China.
Fourth, in a related vein, Chinese analysts say that the argument that arms sales provide Taipei with confidence and thereby increase the prospects for cross-strait negotiations and reconciliation lacks a serious analytical foundation. They contend that offering Taiwan a multibillion dollar arms sales package in 2001 did not lead to an improvement in cross-strait relations.