Look, Ma, No Arms
Why is the Bush administration delaying arms sales to Taiwan?
Aug 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 44 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Early in 2001, President Bush approved the export of arms to democratic Taiwan. At the time, Bush said the United States would do "whatever it takes" to defend its tiny, besieged Pacific ally. That was yesterday. Today, it's looking more like Bush was just kidding.
How else to explain the administration's recent decision to freeze $16 billion worth of the arms deals? Bush approved the sale of Patriot missiles, Apache helicopters, and submarines to Taiwan more than seven years ago. Since then Taiwan has also requested 66 F-16 fighter jets to replace its aging planes. The Taiwanese legislature has appropriated the money with which to buy the weapons. In some cases it has already even put down payments. In return, America has given Taiwan a whole lot of nothing.
On July 16, the head of Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, told an audience at the Heritage Foundation that the administration has concluded "there is no pressing, compelling need for, at this moment, arms sales to Taiwan of the systems that we're talking about." This must have been news to the Taiwanese government, which says the weapons are needed to defend Taiwan. And it certainly must have been a surprise to the authors of the Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military power, who have for the past several years noted the dangerous shift in the military balance of power between Taiwan and China.
Taiwan president Ma Ying-Jeou took office last May, pledging to improve relations between Taiwan and China while protecting his democracy's sovereignty. To that end, in recent months the two countries have resumed cross-strait talks, allowed direct flights between the mainland and Taipei, and pursued further economic integration.
Yet Ma also understands that he must negotiate from a position of strength. For the United States to renege on its commitments would weaken Ma's hand at a critical time. After all, his government is only a few months old and Beijing is no doubt searching for weaknesses. American self-doubt and lack of follow through--in effect, a lack of American resolve and confidence in Ma's government--may lead Chinese policymakers to think that they can act provocatively.
Beijing has already gotten away with a lot. China is a rising autocratic power that has suffered no consequences for its gross human rights violations and support for rogue regimes. The military buildup on the Chinese side of the Taiwan Strait continues uninterrupted. There are now more than a thousand Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan. In the last decade the Chinese have deployed more than 300 advanced aircraft across the Strait. China has five ongoing submarine programs. A massive, underground nuclear submarine base was recently detected on Hainan Island.
China has reasons for its buildup. It is meant, among other things, to deter unilateral declarations of Taiwanese independence. The authors of the Defense Department's 2008 report on Chinese military power wrote, the "ongoing deployment of short-range ballistic missiles, enhanced amphibious warfare capabilities, and modern, long-range anti-air systems opposite Taiwan are reminders of Beijing's unwillingness to renounce the use of force." The greater the military imbalance between China and Taiwan, the more likely China is to use military force in a cross-strait dispute. This is another reason the deal is necessary. Taiwan requires arms to serve as a deterrent against the mainland.
Why the delay? The administration has provided only a series of excuses. First the deal was held up because Washington was displeased with Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian's pro-independence rhetoric. Now Chen is gone, replaced by Ma's quietist diplomacy. The new excuse is that fulfilling our end of the bargain would upset China on the verge of next week's Beijing Olympics. Even if this were the case, and it probably is not, the administration has to shoulder much of the blame. Its foot-dragging in years past helped produce this impasse (though Taiwan's then-opposition Kuomintang party was also a problem). And once the Olympics are over, and the weapons still have not been exported, expect the administration to say that it cannot fulfill its commitments to Taiwan because to do so may jeopardize China's participation in the North Korean denuclearization talks.
All of these excuses point to the actual reason for the delay: America's current Taiwan policy is motivated by fear. We are afraid of upsetting China and afraid, in turn, of what an upset China might do in response. And the consequence of this fear is a weakened position for the United States and its East Asian allies.