The Importance of United States’ Arms Sales for Taiwan’s Defense


Relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States have been tense for some time, with the issues of China’s expansionism in the South China Sea and conflicting objectives regarding North Korea exacerbating tensions. However, if there is one issue to stand out as putting the most stress on the relationship, it would be the issue of the United States’ support for Taiwan, and the recent arms deal would indicate this.

On June 29, 2017, the Trump administration announced a new round of arms sales with Taiwan worth $1.42B, sparking Chinese ire. This is first such arms sale under President Trump and the first sale since former President Barack Obama announced a $1.83B deal in 2015. China demanded that the U.S. revoke the deal, claiming that the sale violated the consensus on good relations reached between Trump and Chinese premier Xi Jinping. It is unlikely that the United States would honor this demand, as it views the arms sales to be incredibly important. To understand this importance one must first understand the history of the sales.

In 1979, the United States and China normalized relations, forcing the United States to sever official relations with Taiwan in the process. Immediately, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which stated that the “United States shall 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 as determined by the President and the Congress.” This act serves as the bedrock of the continued arms sales. The United States is virtually the only country providing Taiwan with weapons. The arms sales continued, with some sort of a sales agreement every year between 1980-2010. The 1982 August 17 Communiqué, which stated that the United States would gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan, and the Six Assurances to Taiwan, which stated that the U.S. wouldn’t set an end date for the arms sales, alter the Taiwan Relations Act, or consult China in advance of making decisions about the arms deals set the stage for a contentious and confusing arrangement. The support for arms sales has been bipartisan, with every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter announcing arms sales. While some presidents have sought to reduce the visibility of the sales, no president declined to sell Taiwan arms. However, the erratic timing has caused lawmakers such as Arizona Senator John McCain to push for a more regularized process for arms sales to ensure that Taiwan always receives arms.

All U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are virulently opposed by China. The sales, which include weapons ranging from decommissioned U.S. Navy frigates and surface-to-air missiles to early warning radar, are viewed by China as an infringement on its sovereignty. China views Taiwan as a breakaway province and has stated that it would retake it by force if necessary. The U.S. providing Taiwan with weapons is viewed by China as interference in its domestic affairs and a prolonging of the process of reunification. China’s actions, including its 2015 announcement that it would sanction the U.S. firms selling arms to Taiwan, reveal its anger.

While angering China has a negative effect of the arms sales, the importance for the United States that they continue consistently outweighs it. By 2011, China had nearly 2,000 missiles aimed at Taiwan, and more recently in March of this year, it was revealed that Dongfeng 16 (DF-16) medium range ballistic missiles were added to the mix of missiles. Most Taiwanese prefer the current status quo of no independence or reunification. China’s policy of eventual reunification runs counter to this. The provision of arms by the United States ensures that Taiwan can continue on its current path, and that it can resist China’s attempts at “Finlandizing” it. The status quo has kept the peace between China and Taiwan, and the arms sales have played a key role in sustaining this.

Along with U.S. troops in Japan and South Korea, the sales are one of the most visible signs of American commitment to its allies in the region. The arms sales go beyond verbal support and show the United States providing an ally with tools of hard power. The United States exports arms to several countries in the region. American weapons account for around 90% of Japan’s weapons imports, 60% of Australia’s, 59% of South Korea’s and 41% of the Philippines’. Each sale holds weight because it signals this same commitment to them as it does for Taiwan.

The status quo upheld by the arms deal extends beyond Taiwan. Ending an almost 40 year policy would send shockwaves through the region and could very well encourage Chinese aggression. If the United States ended the sale of arms, China and American allies in the region would likely view it as U.S. appeasement of China. The perceived weakening of the U.S. could encourage China to take more aggressive actions, potentially sparking a dangerous crisis. Furthermore, it could greatly erode the confidence of America’s Asia-Pacific allies, namely South Korea, Japan and the Philippines, who all have defense treaties with the U.S. These allies may worry that their own arms deals are in jeopardy and that the U.S. is not seriously committed to their defense, forcing them to pursue other options and eroding American influence in the region.

The arms sales to Taiwan have been one of the most consequential foreign policy actions by the United States in recent history. They have kept the peaceful status quo and have publicly displayed America’s commitment to its allies. With China’s continued rise, the arms sales are more important now than ever before to keep the tensions in the Asia-Pacific from boiling over.

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About the Author 

Brian Blonder is an intern with the Eurasian Conflicts Studies (formerly Armed Conflicts) Project at the ERA Institute. 

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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