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The Arms Control Association is an "exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size." 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan Further Upset China
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Wade Boese

WITH TENSIONS ACROSS the Taiwan Straits already heightened by the president of Taiwan's provocative statements, the United States announced $550 million in new arms sales to Taipei at the end of July. China, long-opposed to U.S. arms sales to the island, vehemently protested the proposed deals, and, on the same day, announced the testing of its latest ICBM, the Dong Feng-31. (See story.) Washington downplayed the Chinese reaction as unsurprising.

Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui touched off the latest round of cross-Straits warnings, threats, and military posturing July 9 when he said that China and Taiwan should conduct relations on a "state-to-state" basis, thereby challenging the decades-old "one China" policy, which holds that China and Taiwan are two parts of the same country and will eventually reunify. The ambiguous policy has allowed Washington to maintain distinct relations with Taipei while recognizing Beijing as the official government of China. China, which sees Taiwan as a renegade province and has long threatened to use force if it declares independence, immediately denounced Lee's remarks.

Washington, still working to repair Sino-U.S. relations following NATO's May 7 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, sought to quell the growing crisis by repeatedly stating that Taiwan's status could only be resolved by Beijing and Taipei and that U.S. policy remained unchanged. U.S. government spokespersons have repeatedly said that any use of force would be of "grave concern."

Despite efforts to stay above the fray, the United States found itself further embroiled in the dispute after the Pentagon announced proposed sales of combat aircraft spare parts and two E-2T Hawkeye early-warning aircraft to Taiwan on July 30 and 31. The 1976 Arms Export Control Act requires that Congress be notified of all "major defense equipment" sales valued at $14 million or more.

Two days later, China's Vice-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi warned a senior U.S. diplomat against the "seriousness and danger" of continued arms sales to Taiwan. Yang charged the United States with yet again violating the August 1982 Sino-U.S. communiqué, under which President Ronald Reagan pledged that the United States would not "carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan," and would "not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those [arms] supplied in recent years." During the 1990s alone, the Pentagon has delivered more than $12.7 billion in weapons to Taiwan in comparison with $3.6 billion supplied between 1950 and 1988.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin also reportedly sent a letter to President Clinton calling for a cessation of all U.S.-Taiwan arms sales.

On August 2 State Department spokesman James Rubin defended the latest sales as being in line with commitments under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which requires the United States to supply Taiwan with weapons necessary for maintaining "a sufficient self-defense capability." Rubin dismissed the Chinese reaction as "common and expected."

While it condemned Taiwanese arms buys, unconfirmed reports surfaced throughout July and August that Beijing had reached a $2 billion agreement to purchase 50 to 60 Russian Su-30MKK fighter-bombers. These fighters would give China an enhanced ground-attack capability and compliment the 48 Su-27CK air superiority fighters already acquired from Moscow. Beijing also has a license to co-produce another 200 Su-27s.

A February 1999 Pentagon report estimated that by 2005 China will possess 2,200 tactical fighter aircraft, 500 ground attack aircraft and 400 bombers, though most will be older second- and third-generation planes. Taiwan, on the other hand, will have more than 300 fourth-generation fighters, including 150 U.S. F-16A/B fighters, 60 French Mirage 2000-5s and 130 Indigenous Defense Fighters. The Pentagon concluded that in 2005 Taipei will still have a "qualitative edge over Beijing in terms of significant weapons and equipment."

Congress Gets Into the Act

Amid the growing discord, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—chaired by stalwart Taiwan supporter Jesse Helms (R-NC)—held an August 4 hearing on the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would authorize the United States to supply Taiwan with theater missile defense (TMD) equipment, advanced air-to-air missiles, diesel submarines and anti-submarine weapons. All have been on Taiwan's annual shopping list for years, but the administration has refused to export these weapons because they are not strictly "defensive."

Helms, a co-sponsor of the act, said Washington's need to enhance its defense relationship with Taiwan "is obvious." However, his committee counterpart, Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), said passage of the act would "be the equivalent of waving a red cape in front of Beijing." Rubin, speaking prior to the hearing, stated the administration's opposition to the legislation.

On August 18, Taiwanese officials expressed interest in U.S.-led regional TMD plans, though they have yet to formally notify Washington of any desire to participate in the proposed program. China, which fired missiles into the waters off Taiwan in 1996 and is suspected of currently deploying some 100 missiles across from the island, has repeatedly warned that Taiwan's inclusion in a TMD program would infringe on China's sovereignty and possibly spark a new arms race. For its part, Washington has not ruled out future sales of TMD systems to Taiwan.

Tensions appeared to be waning by the end of August, and one State Department official said there have not been any "extraordinary activities." President Clinton and President Jiang will likely meet September 12-13 at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation's (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting in Auckland, New Zealand.