More Light than Heat: The Latest U.S. Arms Sale to Taiwan

The $1.83 billion arms sale package to Taiwan that the Obama administration announced to Congress in mid-December won’t change the military balance across the Taiwan Strait. Hawkish American commentators criticized the arms sale for not doing enough to provide for Taiwan’s security, but this misses the point. The most important aspect of the arms sale is not the kind of equipment being sold but the message sent by the transaction.

From a military perspective, the equipment in the arms sale is nothing to get excited about. The most prominent items are two refurbished Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates and 36 AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles. Guided missiles, Phalanx ship defense systems, and communications equipment make up the rest of the package. None of these capabilities will significantly change the balance of power between Taiwan and mainland China.

What does it accomplish?

First, the timing of the arms sale announcement is important. On January 16th, voters in Taiwan will go to the polls to select a new President and legislators. The period of rapprochement between Taiwan and mainland China championed by President Ma Ying-jeou since 2008 will likely come to an end. It is too early to tell how the election will impact cross-strait relations, but announcing an arms sale so close to the election demonstrates a continued U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense.

Second, the modest size of the sale is a signal to Taiwan to get serious about self-defense. Taiwan’s military spending has increased in recent years after a deep decline in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but spending is well under three percent of GDP despite a 2008 campaign pledge by Ma to hit the three percent target. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the presumptive winning party, has issued a series of policy papers outlining a wide-ranging plan to improve Taiwan’s defenses. The problem with announcing a large arms sale before these policies are implemented is that it could serve as a disincentive for the DPP to follow through with its defense policy.

Third, the arms sale signals the Obama administration’s willingness to push back against Chinese assertiveness in East Asia. America and its regional allies and partners are modestly balancing against the threat posed by China by increasing military spending, adding ships to their fleets, and increasing defense cooperation. The arms sale to Taiwan is a continuation of this trend. Whether or not pushing back is going to succeed is a different question, but the arms sale was likely announced with this trend in mind.

The December 2015 arms sale to Taiwan gives off more light than heat, but that light is significant. While the material side of the sale is modest, it sends a message to Taiwan and mainland China for Obama’s last year in office. In 2016, the United States will likely be more involved and more assertive in East Asia.