Nothing causes greater discord in relations between the United States and China than the status of Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China.
However, the best way to maintain peace between Washington and Beijing may be for the U.S. to continue selling weapons to Taiwan.
Once ruled by imperial China — but never by communist China — the Taiwanese have created a vibrant democracy. Yet their small nation risks being crushed by Bejing’s embrace.
During the Cold War, China and Taiwan were bitterly at odds. As China grew economically and moderated politically, it surged past Taipei on the international stage. Today China is determined to reassert control over what it views as an errant province.
Even the U.S. now recognizes only Beijing. However, Washington has promised to sell Taiwan weapons for its defense. Last year the U.S. announced a $6.4 billion arms package.
The U.S.-China relationship likely will be the world’s most important bilateral connection this century. The two nations are tightly linked economically. They share many other interests: stability in East Asia, freedom of the seas, open global economy, cooperative international institutions.
Perhaps the most important objective for the existing superpower and the potential superpower is to avoid conflict. China has demonstrated little interest in overseas military expansion or attacking the U.S. Economic competition between the two is growing in Asia, Africa, and even South America, but Washington’s best response would be to liberalize the U.S. economy, not deploy the Navy.
A clash is possible in East Asia, however. Today the U.S. dominates the region, even along China’s border. But China is building deterrent forces, particularly missiles and submarines capable of sinking U.S. carriers. China poses no threat to the American homeland. However, Beijing doesn’t want the U.S. to be able to threaten its homeland.
Imagine if the Chinese Navy was patrolling America’s coasts, prepared to intervene in, say, Washington’s struggle with Hawaiian secessionists.
Since it is far cheaper to build defensive than offensive weapons, America could bankrupt itself buying additional platforms in order to maintain its ability to attack the Chinese mainland. Nevertheless, Washington should not abandon Taiwan. The island is entitled to decide its own destiny. Beijing is not justified in trying to coerce the Taiwanese people.
The best solution would be a negotiated settlement. The two states and peoples have drawn steadily closer. However, China will make itself politically attractive only when it accepts a free society as well as a freer economy.
In the meantime, the U.S. should authorize arms sales which enable the island to maintain a military deterrent just as China is building a deterrent to America. Taipei should not “try to match the PRC (China) ship for ship, plane for plane, or missile for missile,” argued the Washington-based Taiwan Policy Working Group. Rather, Taipei should build a small but deadly force capable of exacting a high price from any attackers.
Last year’s weapons package included Harpoon and Patriot missiles, mine-detection ships, Blackhawk helicopters, and communications equipment. Washington put off any decision on advanced F-16s and diesel submarines.
But Taiwan is now pressing for the fighters. The Obama administration reportedly has decided to refuse to supply the most advanced aircraft. China might retaliate diplomatically. However, empowering Taiwan is worth risking tenser relations with China. After all, arms sales do not put America and China on a path to war. Rather, they create a disincentive for Beijing to consider war as an option.
That’s why a reasonable accommodation between China and Taiwan is more likely if Taipei possesses the ability to defend itself. Taiwanese officials repeatedly made this point on my recent visit.
Vice Defense Minister Andrew N.D. Yang said the objective is to create a force that tells China: “Don’t mess with us, for you will pay a big price if you do.”
Ambassador Stephen S.F. Chen, now at the National Policy Foundation, noted that better aircraft would increase Taiwan’s bargaining power: “when we enter into political negotiations with the mainland we need to go into negotiations from a position of strength.”
Of course, Taipei should not be purely reliant on America. Taiwan recently deployed its third generation of Brave Wind anti-ship missiles. Taipei also is considering production of the Hsiung Feng-2E ballistic missile. Even a small strategic deterrent would force China to hesitate before threatening Taiwan.
Washington should help Taipei defend itself. Peace is in the interest of Taiwan, China and the U.S. Washington should maintain a good relationship with China. And continuing arms sales to Taipei may be the best means to preserve stability and peace across the Taiwan Strait.