Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Long-Delayed Arms Sales to Taiwan Announced

Kirsten McNeil

The Bush administration notified Congress Oct. 3 that it plans to sell more than $6.4 billion in military equipment to Taiwan, triggering sharp criticism from China, which believes that the move would violate bilateral assurances made by Washington to decrease arms transfers to Taiwan.

According to the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the bulk of the planned U.S. sale would include 330 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles and 30 Apache Longbow attack helicopters, as well as 182 Javelin guided anti-tank missiles, 32 submarine-launched Harpoon missiles, spare parts for F-16s and other fighter aircraft, and upgrades for four E-2T Hawkeye 2000 early-warning aircraft. The proposed package does not include new F-16 fighter jets or submarines, about which Beijing has been particularly concerned.

Congress has 30 days to review and possibly object to the transfers. The sales will only be finalized after formal agreements are signed between Taiwan and the United States.

China, which views Taiwan as a renegade province, protested the planned sales by canceling or postponing senior-level military visits and humanitarian exchanges with the United States and blocking U.S. military ships from entering Chinese ports. Beijing filed a formal complaint and has called for the deals to be canceled.

As with past U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, China accused the United States of violating a provision in the Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué of 1982, which states that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan will decrease in quantity, frequency, and scope based on the levels of that time. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao issued a statement Oct. 6 calling for the United States to “stop disturbing the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, so as to prevent further damage to the Sino-U.S. relations as well as peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Department of State deputy spokesperson Robert Wood on Oct. 8 called the Chinese reaction to the latest announcement “unfortunate,” and the Pentagon defended the arms sales as defensive in nature. Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the United States has stated that it is U.S. policy to provide arms for the defense of Taiwan, even though the United States has not formally signed a defense treaty with Taiwan.

By holding off on the sale of F-16s and submarines, however, the United States has avoided transferring the most lethal technologies to Taiwan and the equipment that most worried China.

The Bush administration has been trying to carry out some of the arms sales since 2001, but political wrangling in Taiwan and U.S. fears of upsetting China at a time it is playing a crucial role in nuclear talks with North Korea have helped delay most of the sales. An April 2001 package advanced by President George W. Bush included offers to sell Taiwan eight diesel submarines, 12 P-3C Orion anti-submarine aircraft, torpedoes, missiles, helicopters, amphibious vehicles, howitzers and four destroyers. However, in 2001, Bush deferred decisions on requests from Taiwan for Aegis-equipped destroyers, Abrams tanks, and Apache helicopters.

In the seven years since the 2001 announcements, some arms sales from the United States were rejected during the political process in Taiwan because of objections from Taiwan’s parliament or judicial system. Within the Taiwan legislature, heated debates occurred over the island’s defense budget, defensive strategy, funding priorities, and differing perceptions of relations with China.

In the period between the 2001 announcement and Oct. 3 announcement, some more limited arms sales did go forward. Twenty arms sales notifications were published by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, including those related to several missile systems, early-warning radars, aircraft, and destroyers. Nonetheless, according to a Dec. 20, 2007, Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, actual deliveries of U.S. arms to Taiwan have been decreasing but are still significant. During 1999-2002, deliveries to Taiwan totaled $5.8 billion; during 2003-2006, $4.1 billion; and in 2006, $970 million.

An opportunity to move forward with some of the sales emerged after Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May 2008, ending the eight-year reign of the Democratic Progressive Party and re-establishing the historically dominant Kuomintang (Chinese nationalist) party. In contrast to his predecessor, Chen Shui-bian, Ma has taken a more conciliatory approach toward Beijing and has eased tensions with China by downplaying the issues of Taiwan’s status and formal designation.

Nevertheless, in a statement released on his Web site, Ma welcomed the deal, stating, “We feel that [the Oct. 3] announcement by the U.S. administration marks an end to the turmoil in Taiwan-U.S. relations of the past eight years and also represents the beginning of a new era in peace and security, as well as mutual trust between Taiwan and the United States.”

Although the original 2001 announcements included diesel submarines (see ACT, May 2001), the most recent arms sales announcements did not. The prospect of Taiwan acquiring diesel submarines has raised strong opposition in China and debate over whether these would be considered defensive weapons systems. As noted in a 2008 CRS report, the U.S. Navy accepted a proposal from the Taiwan legislature in 2007 to “start the design phase” for these submarines. The Department of Defense also noted in its most recent annual report on Chinese military power, released March 3, 2008, that the Taiwan legislature after years of delay passed a 2007 defense budget that included “funding for a study that would produce a diesel submarine design.”

The same Defense Department report details the current status of forces surrounding Taiwan. Chinese naval and air forces have an advantage in numbers, except in coastal missile boats and fighters. China has been building up short-range missiles on the coast across the Taiwan Strait at a rate of about 100 additional missiles per year, with current force levels around 1,000 short-range missiles. Ostensibly, the 330 PAC-3 missiles could be used to provide some defense against the mainland’s short-range missiles.

Wendy Morigi, a spokesperson for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), Oct. 8 welcomed the arms sale package, calling it “an important response to Taiwan’s defense needs. This action is fully consistent with U.S. obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act. The sale helps to contribute to Taiwan’s defense and the maintenance of a healthy balance in the Taiwan Strait.”

On Oct. 7, the Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), said the proposed sales do not go far enough because they do not include submarines or new F-16 aircraft. “I urge the administration to reconsider this decision, in light of its previous commitment to provide submarines and America’s previous sales of F-16s,” McCain said.