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U.S. Conventional Arms Sales to Taiwan

Press Contact: Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x117

Updated: October 2012

Since the United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have been one of the most contentious issues in U.S.-China relations. Beijing wants control of the island and has not ruled out military action to achieve its goal, threatening to use force if Taiwan indefinitely refuses negotiations on reunification, declares independence, or is occupied by another country. Washington has urged the two sides to settle Taiwan's future peacefully and warned that it would view efforts to coerce reunification with "grave concern."

The value of annual U.S. government arms sales agreements with Taiwan varies, ranging in the past 20 years from a low of $10 million in fiscal year 2006 to a high of nearly $5.37 billion in fiscal year 1993. (See chart on reverse side.) The United States also authorizes private U.S. arms companies to conclude weapon deals with Taiwan. The value of reported arms deliveries through these commercial channels has varied between roughly $5 million and $364 million each year.

The United States justifies these sales under the Taiwan Relations Act, which declares that the United States "will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability." Passed by Congress in March 1979 after the United States changed its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, the act became law on April 10, 1979.

China, which claims Taiwan is the "most crucial and most sensitive issue" in its relations with the United States, maintains that U.S. arms sales to Taipei infringe on China's sovereignty because Washington acknowledges that Taiwan is part of China. Beijing also charges that sales contradict the U.S.-China joint communiqué issued August 17, 1982. That document stated that the United States

"Does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution."

China had demanded in October 1981 that the United States set a fixed date for ending arms sales to Taiwan, but Washington refused. A strong supporter of Taiwan, President Ronald Reagan made the August 1982 commitment because he wanted better relations with China as a counterweight to the Soviet Union and because his administration believed the level of arms supplied by the Carter administration in its last years set the bar relatively high for future U.S. transfers.

Reagan assured Taiwan that the communiqué did not spell out a date for cutting off U.S. arms supplies and that Washington would not consult with Beijing about what U.S. arms would be provided to Taipei. In addition, Reagan and subsequent U.S. presidents interpreted the U.S. pledge to gradually reduce sales as conditioned on the maintenance of a military balance between China and Taiwan. The United States also contends the 1982 communiqué is a political document that is not legally binding, whereas the Taiwan Relations Act is U.S. law.

Current Status:

During his first term in office, President Barack Obama has sought to reduce the visibility U.S. arms sales to Taiwan by providing new three arms packages, while simultaneously refusing to approve a deal to provide Taiwan with new fighter jets, the most contenious issue for China.  Instead, the administration has offered to upgrade Taipei's existing fleet of F-16 fighters, rather than approve a deal that would provide Taiwan with 66 new F-16 fighters.  This upgrade agreement is in addition to the AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, P-3C Orion maritime patrol planes and Patriot Advanced Capability-3 air defense systems provided to Taipei as a part of the Obama administration's three arms packages to Taiwan since entering into office in January 2008.  The Obama administration has suffered bipartisan criticism from Congress a result of both their perceived indifference to Taiwan and their concern for China's reaction to any announced arms transfers.

U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan Since 1980 (values not adjusted for inflation):

Fiscal Year
U.S. Government
Arms Agreements
U.S. Government
Arms Deliveries
U.S. Commercial
Arms Deliveries
2010 $1.25 billion $713 million

unavailable

2009

3.17 billion

646 million unavailable
2008 608 million 618 million $364 million
2007 22 thousand 777 million 200 million
2006 10 million 1.07 billion 5 million
2005 244 thousand 1.39 billion 20 million
2004 591 million 917 million 34 million
2003 445 million 709 million 9 million
2002
71 million
1.37 billion
134 million
2001
272 million
1.15 billion
29 million
2000
134 million
784 million
15 million
1999
546 million
2.44 billion
16 million
1998
591 million
1.42 billion
173 million
1997
354 million
2.39 billion
261 million
1996
449 million
820 million
20 million
1995
208 million
1.33 billion
28 million
1994
361 million
845 million
262 million
1993
5.37 billion
815 million
346 million
1992
478 million
710 million
96 million
1991
474 million
549 million
160 million
1990
518 million
452 million
150 million
1989
522 million
387 million
85 million
1988
487 million
497 million
195 million
1987
501 million
357 million
210 million
1986
506 million
249 million
229 million
1985
709 million
336 million
54 million
1984
670 million
292 million
70 million
1983
631 million
387 million
85 million
1982
489 million
386 million
75 million
1981
312 million
373 million
67 million
1980
487 million
210 million
58 million
Total
$21.21 billion
$25.39 billion
$3.41 billion

Specific Weaponry:

Prior to 2006, the United States voluntarily reported conventional arms transfers to Taiwan--including specific weapon types--to the United Nations.  However, in 2006 a United Nations group of governmental experts recommended that all future reports submitted to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms only include information on conventional arms transfers to United Nations' member states.  As a result, there is no new available data on the specific weaponry transferred to Taiwan since 2006.

Sources: Defense Security Cooperation Agency, China's February 2000 White Paper on Taiwan, Congressional Research Service