Friday, December 11, 2009

Taiwan Should Say 'No' To U.S. Arms

Recently, RealClearWorld, the international sister site to RealClearPolitics, published my op-ed on the recent movement in the Obama Administration toward selling arms to Taiwan. Here's a link to the op-ed on RealClearWorld. But for convenience, I've included the full text below. As always, I would be glad to hear your thoughts.

By Kevin Slaten

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan - The U.S. might make a final decision for a new arms deal with Taiwan in the next two weeks. This weapons package should be put on hold, not because it's inconvenient for U.S.-China relations, but because it threatens the Taiwanese people. In fact, not one of these three countries has an interest in seeing this deal to fruition. And at best, the timing is terrible

On Dec. 9, the deputy assistant secretary of state for defense trade in the Obama Administration revealed that the U.S. is getting close to another major arms package to Taiwan, including Black Hawk helicopters, advanced Patriot missiles and diesel submarines. As expected, China responded a day later, unequivocally opposing the potential sale. President Obama's decision to notify Congress of the sale could come as early as the third week in December after Obama returns from Copenhagen.

This arms package should be frozen where it stands, namely in Congressional discussions and Pentagon war planners.

The common line of argument is that such a deal may damage the U.S.-China relationship, which is packed with important issue like climate change and trade. At the very least, it could halt the progress of Sino-U.S. military-to-military (mil-mil) exchanges.

In all likelihood, however, this arms deal would do little to affect negotiations on central economic and environmental issues. After past U.S.-Taiwan arms deals, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has not linked the security and economic realms. Despite U.S. arms deliveries to Taiwan from 2000-2007, trade between the U.S.-China grew 130% during the same period, from $116 billion to $386 billion.

But concerns over mil-mil exchanges may be more justified. In 2008, the Bush Administration approved an arms package to Taiwan, which resulted in the PRC suspending mil-mil talks. Given China's rapidly growing defense capabilities, the future of security in the Asian Pacific region depends on a more robust and less suspicious military relationship between the U.S. and China.

Despite this, the U.S.-Taiwan arms deal is much worse for the prospects of the Taiwanese people than that of their American or Chinese counterparts. Unlike the Sino-U.S. relationship, the Sino-Taiwanese relationship is not a conference of two equal powers, and Taiwan cannot afford to let its recent progress with the Mainland fall apart.

Right now, representatives of the PRC and Taiwan are negotiating an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which is a partial free trade agreement (FTA). This trade pact is essential to the continuing competitiveness of Taiwan in the East Asian economy because a free trade zone is fast emerging in region. The PRC has been in talks with Korea and Japan over a trilateral FTA and a China-ASEAN FTA comes into force on Jan. 1, 2010.

President Ma Ying-jeou hopes to sign the ECFA by spring of next year. If this trade deal were to fall through, the consequences for the Taiwanese people would be serious. According to the Council of Labor Affairs in Taiwan, the country's economy stands to lose 0.2% GDP and 47,000 jobs if the ECFA were not signed. And this is on top of the expected 2.5% contraction of Taiwan's economy in 2009, which is heavily reliant on exports. Even worse, none of these numbers can take into account the damage to Taiwan's GDP once business and investment start moving to ASEAN and China in 2010.

An arms package between the U.S. and Taiwan would jeopardize the ECFA. The PRC has a much smaller economic stake in the ECFA than Taiwan. China's GDP is growing at a brisk 8% clip, and the Chinese do not have the pressure of being left out of a looming East Asian free trade zone, namely because China is central to that zone. So although the Mainland might want to sign the ECFA, it loses little from making an example of the arms deal by putting the ECFA off until 2011. But the Taiwanese cannot afford any stalling.

The gains of this arms deal for Taiwan, however, are minimal. China has near 1,500 missiles pointed at Taiwan, around 70 submarines, and another 70 combat ships. The Chinese navy could overwhelm Taiwanese defenses. Yet Taiwan's deterrent against Chinese invasion has always been, and will remain, the economic disincentive for the PRC to invade as well as a strong American military presence in the Asian Pacific. The handful of missiles, helicopters and submarines included in this arms package will not change that.

Here in Taiwan, few people foresee a war with China. But economic stagnation is an everyday reality. Taiwanese, especially young people, are uncertain if they can get a job out of college.

Of course, the Obama and Ma Administrations do not want to be viewed as acquiescent to China by their respective critiques, so they might want this arms deal for domestic political appeal. But neither has much to lose from waiting until next year. Besides, the potential damage to Taiwan's economy could quickly override any gains of an arms package to President Ma's approval ratings.

So other than a small (and forgettable) political gain for Ma and Obama, these arms would increase no one's security.

Kevin Slaten was a junior fellow in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Now, he lives in Taiwan on a Fulbright Grant. His opinions in no way reflect the views of the State Department or Foundation for Scholarly Exchange. He blogs at