China only has itself to blame for fresh US arms sales to Taiwan

Michal Thim says US comradeship with Taiwan turns upon the threat of use of force by China and, as long as Beijing continues with its tough policy decisions on Taipei, the weapons sales will continue

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 July, 2017, 2:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 11:23pm

Last week was not the best for Beijing when it comes to relations with the US and China’s long-standing efforts to dissuade Washington from supporting Taiwan.

First, the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee approved a provision in the National Defence Authorisation Act for 2018, calling for a resumption of port visits to Taiwan by the US Navy. Second, the State Department announced the Trump administration’s first arms sale to Taiwan, approving a package of equipment potentially valued at US$1.4 billion, though a relatively modest deal compared to previous instances.

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Pending US congressional approval, Taiwan will receive, among other items, upgrades to the powerful Raytheon early-warning radar system located in its north, advanced torpedoes for its two diesel-electric submarines, and stand-off missiles allowing Taiwan’s F-16 fighter jets to fire from less-exposed positions.

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In light of this development, the passing of China’s first aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait en route to Hong Kong suddenly took on additional meaning, even though the Liaoning left its home port of Qingdao well ahead of the arms sale announcement.

The reaction from China was one of predictable indignation. Every arms sale is bad news for China, not only because of improvements to Taiwan’s capability to fend off any military action from Beijing, but also because there is hardly a more effective statement of continued adherence to a framework defined by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 and US president Ronald Reagan’s Six Assurances of 1982.

One of the defining features of this framework is that weapons sales will continue as long as there is a threat of use of force by Beijing.

The deal comes at a time when the US is pushing Beijing towards a harder stance on North Korea. Thus, many commentators concluded that the sale is not so much about assisting Taiwan’s defence as about using the sale as leverage against China.

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It is indeed possible that it was an important part of the overall consideration. It is also possible that earlier speculation about a much larger package – that would include major combat systems, including America’s most advanced stealth F-35 jets – aimed to serve the same purpose, that is, compelling Beijing to lean harder on North Korea.

The US Congress continues to guarantee that the executive branch pays due attention to Taiwan’s needs

However, this does not yet mean that Taiwan is a mere prize to trade away in a hypothetical grand power bargain. The peculiarity of US-Taiwan relations is they are not the sole prerogative of the executive branch. Relations are alive and well in large part thanks to the somewhat under-appreciated role of the US Congress.

When president Jimmy Carter attempted to cut ties with Taiwan in 1979, Congress scrambled to the rescue and locked Carter’s and all successive administrations into Taiwan Relations Act requirements. Nearly 40 years later, the US Congress continues to guarantee that the executive branch pays due attention to Taiwan’s needs.

Isolating Taiwan from the US would be a real winner for Beijing. Ever since Taiwan’s presidential election last year elevated the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party to power, Beijing has been more eager to try to isolate Taiwan on the international stage, and through informal sanctions imposed on bilateral communications.

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The apparent choking off of mainland Chinese tourists to Taiwan has left some tour operators and hoteliers disgruntled, but Taiwan’s industry as such is growing. Renewed poaching among the handful of so-called diplomatic allies, that is, countries which still recognise the Republic of China instead of the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate Chinese government, turned Panama and Sao Tome over to Beijing’s side.

However, that changes very little in the overall strategic situation, as long as there is a sustained US commitment to Taiwan and the strong interest of Japan in preserving the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing’s problem is also that it has very little to offer, even if a grand bargain deal were on the table. It cannot deliver on North Korea because it does not control Kim Jong-un’s regime, nor is China interested in the regime’s fall, despite all the troubles. It also won’t consider taking the use of force vis-à-vis Taiwan off the table, and thus one of the preconditions for continued US arms sales is here to stay.

If the situation were not complicated enough, China’s foreign ministry stunned many with a statement that the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 – which laid out the British handover of Hong Kong and its functioning as part of China under “one country, two systems” for at least 50 years – no longer has any practical significance. So, how Chinese leaders want to keep the façade of “one country, two systems” as a viable model for Taiwan is anyone’s guess.

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Granted, this model was never an acceptable option for Taiwan, and therefore it would seem that no harm has been done. However, Beijing currently does not have anything better to offer Taiwan and the world. Discarding the model in Hong Kong so blatantly a mere 20 years into its expected 50-year lifespan could not possibly have a positive effect on the credibility of any potential peaceful proposition to Taiwan.

Beijing could not possibly have made such an announcement on the agreement without having thought through the consequences for its Taiwan policy. Chinese leaders may be expressing anger and denunciation, but it is also their policy decisions that contribute significantly to the continuing importance of US arms sales to Taiwan.

Michal Thim is a Taiwan analyst at the Association for International Affairs (Czech Republic) and a fellow of the Metropolitan Society for International Affairs (US)