In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) brought up the issue of US military weapons sales to Taiwan with US President Barack Obama, demanding that he put an end to them. He also suggested that the two countries inform each other prior to major military exercises, and that they establish standard practice for their armed forces.
In a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Aug. 19, Chinese Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan (常萬全) suggested the establishment of three task forces, in order to address three obstacles to exchanges between the US military and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Apart from the military activities in special economic zones and the US’ restrictions on high-tech exports, the issue of most concern to Taiwan is US military sales to Taiwan.
Chang and Hagel agreed to set up a strategic planning exchange mechanism between the PLA and the US military.
Next year, Hagel is expected to visit China, and PLA Chief of Staff Fang Fenghui (房峰輝) will visit the US. There is a lot of close contact between the US and Chinese armed forces, but this is not, by nature, friendly cooperation: It is more like two adversaries sounding each other out, and looking for what military intelligence they can get.
Although Chang was able to see the premises of the US Northern Command (USNorthcom) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the Americans did not allow him access to the NORAD centers and the Alternate Command Center installations within the Cheyenne Mountain nuclear bunker.
Since the US and China officially established diplomatic relations in 1979, China has consistently demanded that the US cease military sales to Taiwan.
Despite the framework for US arms sales to the nation announced in the joint Sino-US communique of Aug. 17, 1982, when then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) was in power, in the three decades that followed, the value of US weapons sales increased, from several billion US dollars in the first decade to US$19 billion in the second and US$28 billion in the third.
Beijing has tried to exert pressure on the US to stop arms sales to Taiwan in the past. In 2002, then-Chinese president Jiang Zemin (江澤民) proposed to then-US president George W. Bush that China would reduce the deployment of missiles aimed at Taiwan in exchange for the cessation of US arms sales.
However, the US position has long been that it would be very happy if China wants to discuss the reduction of missile deployment aimed at Taiwan, but that Beijing should be having this discussion with Taipei, not Washington. In other words, the US does not want a reduction of arms sales to be used as a bargaining chip in Sino-US negotiations.
Beijing believes all it needs to do is cut off Taiwan’s supply of overseas military procurement and the nation will not have the military might to resist. However, during Sino-US strategic and economic talks, Obama’s former deputy secretary of state James Steinberg insisted that US arms sales to Taiwan could not be the focus of any discussions related to the Taiwan Strait.
Obama has said he does not want to sell F-16C/D jets to Taiwan, but he did announce on two occasions — in 2010 and 2011 — arms sales worth US$12.3 billion. Earlier this month, the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously approved the “Taiwan Policy Act” proposal, which again encouraged the sale of F-16C/D fighters to Taiwan.
Beijing has tried a raft of sanctions on the issue of US arms sales to Taiwan. It has withdrawn from the UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA), temporarily frozen Sino-US military exchanges, and warned representatives of US national defense companies based in China about the consequences of any such sales.
Beijing could dump its US dollar government bonds, pull back on its diplomatic relations with the US, and refuse to cooperate with the US in international multilateral organizations, but these approaches would all go against the spirit of the new type of “Great Power relationship” that Xi has recently said he wishes to see between the two powers.
Sino-US military relations cannot diverge from the “no conflict, no opposition, mutual respect and cooperation” of this new type of Great Power relationship. The two powers are potential adversaries, and despite the more than 90 channels of dialogue that exist between them, there remains a deficit of mutual trust.
Many Taiwanese seem to think that stronger Sino-US military exchanges means that the two countries will work together to control Taiwan. The biggest impact on the nation is going to be on the psychological level. The US is not that concerned about arms sales, it is up to the Taiwanese government to remind the US of its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act, and of the six assurances that former US president Ronald Reagan made, while also showing a willingness to invest in and reinforce national defense capabilities.
Lin Cheng-yi is a research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Institute of European and American Studies.
Translated by Paul Cooper