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.