US-Asian relations: arms sales to Taiwan threaten to light the fuse

As the Senate ponders the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, which would expand the United States’ military ties to Taiwan, President Bill Clinton has threatened to veto the bill should it pass, worrying that it would upset the delicate balance in the Taiwan Strait. He is right to worry. Not only have the American actions in the strait inflamed China and contributed to a spiraling arms race, but they may have also been in violation of the United States’ own legislation.

The United States’ commitment to Taiwan is defined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), established as a replacement for the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1954 after Beijing informed the United States that the price of formal diplomatic relations would be an end to formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. The TRA stipulates that the United States will “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

However, U.S. actions to strengthen Taiwan’s military, including the export of Patriot anti-missile defense systems and advanced F-16 fighter jets, have been met with anger by China, which views such actions as a violation of the TRA by going beyond purely defensive capabilities. With Macau and Hong Kong’s reunification with the mainland, Taiwan has become one of the most important issues in a nationalist movement that ardently seeks China’s reunification and emergence as a world power. Taiwan is the last major step in reunifying China and as such, China has repeatedly accused the United States of “meddling” in what it considers to be a domestic issue with a renegade province.

The United States has repeatedly reiterated its view that it supports the “One China” policy, opposes violence or the threat of violence to force reunification, and encourages open dialogue. However, as long as Taiwan has the capability to repel a Chinese invasion of the island, it is likely that it will attempt to seek independence or at least to force favorable terms of negotiation with the mainland. Had Taiwan not possessed weaponry – American weaponry – that was superior to the Chinese, it seems unlikely that Taiwan would be so bold as to elect a pro-independence candidate such as Chen Shui-bian to the presidency.

In an apparent effort to level the playing field and thus enhance its credibility to threaten Taiwan, China has stepped up its defense spending. According to the March 11-17 issue of The Economist, China stepped up its defense spending by 12.7 percent, up to $14.6 billion, but analysts say it will be another ten years before China can credibly threaten an invasion. Nevertheless, in 1996, China agreed to purchase 72 advanced SU-27 fighters from Russia and more recently, it purchased a Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyer and four advanced kilo-class submarines.

What the United States has done, whether unwittingly or not, is to contribute to an increasingly dangerous arms race. Each side is attempting to build up its capabilities to avoid appearing weak and allowing the other side to gain the upper hand through threats.

It is unlikely that China will back down and adopt a more lenient policy towards such an emotional issue, let alone allow the island to declare independence. Such a move would send a powerful message to the Chinese people that China cannot manage its own domestic affairs and could possibly destabilize the government.

However, it is also less likely that China will attempt to pursue military action if it can avoid it. China desperately desires accession to the WTO and, more importantly, it desires to influence the international system. In order to do that, it will need to gain the trust of the international community, including the United States, whose Republican Congress harbors a deep suspicion created in part by recent events such as the Wen Ho Lee spying incident and accusations of intellectual property violations.

The House has already passed the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act by a veto-proof 341-70. If the Senate also passes it by a two-thirds majority, it would open the door to a dangerous arms race and heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait. If China feels that Taiwan represents an imminent threat, as might be evidenced by an American-sanctioned military buildup, East Asia’s most volatile flashpoint may erupt into armed conflict.