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


  1. Kudos to Kevin. You have spoken the best interest for people in Taiwan. Thanks. No US Arms. Peace to Taiwan. Kevin 加油 !!!

  2. This is interesting but I don't agree with your conclusion.

    Canceling or delaying a sale at this point would belie Ma Ying-jeou's logic for pursuing an ECFA in the first place. Ma has argued that Taiwan's political future and ability to defend itself will not be harmed (and, indeed, may be enhanced) by an ECFA.

    This is an arms sale package that has been stalled since 2001. Now that the U.S. appears to be moving closer to the sale, backing down would embolden China to continue to use blackmail to prevent Taiwan from improving its military situation.

    I would note, also, that China continues, in spite of Ma's election and the ECFA negotiations, to set up more and more missiles opposite Taiwan (seven brigades, up to 1200 short-range missiles, according to DOD). If China were serious about reducing the military build-up, it would have to demonstrate restraint in its own actions.

    Finally, I'm not sure an arms sale would substantially delay an ECFA. China has a huge incentive to show Taiwan's population that it has something to gain by electing moderate leaders like Ma. Failing to follow through on ECFA could mean Ma would lose the next election, something China very much does not want.

    Food for thought, though. I may take on this issue at at some point....


  3. Hey Dan, thanks for the thoughts.

    A few points in response:

    You seem to forget that the argument I'm making is not really one of "if", it is more accurately about the timing of the arms deal. That this has been stalled since 2001 makes my argument even stronger. Why pick the months immediately before signing the ECFA, of all periods of time that you could carry out the arms deal?

    Further, none of the points you have made would really challenge the idea of waiting until *after* the ECFA is inked. Actually, waiting until after the economic pact is in motion actually makes Chinese reaction to an arms deal less consequential because it is harder for the PRC to back out of a contracted ECFA.

    Finally, I think that your final point is most salient. True, the sale *could* be inconsequential to the ECFA process because Chinese leaders have deemed the ECFA sufficiently important. However, to this I offer two dishes of my own for thought: 1) Do you really know what the Standing Committee wants in regards to this issue? No, neither does anyone else except for the half dozen people in that committee. 2) It might be easier to take this risk when you are an American (or any other non-Taiwanese). This is central to my argument in the article: Taiwanese people have much more to lose if the calculations you've suggested in your last point are wrong.

    So, the short of it is this: as a Taiwanese (or President Ma, more specifically), hedge your bets. ECFA first, then arms deal. This is my argument in the article.


  4. The thing is--it's perception that counts here. And appearing to postpone the decision, even if the deal ultimately goes through, is going to make it look like Taipei is willing to sacrifice its own interests to stay on Beijing's good side.

    If Hu Jintao said China would be mad if the U.S. increased its military spending, and threatened to withhold China's support for the NPT review (something important to us, but not immediately threatening), then how should we react? Extrapolating from your recommendations to Taiwan, then, in addition to postponing/delaying indefinitely a meeting with the Dalai Lama, Obama should also freeze U.S. military spending to please the Chinese. This would obviously be a bad idea, and I think you'd agree: it would embolden China to think it could bully us around. Same for Taiwan--all the more so because the stakes for Taiwan are much higher.

    Even if Taiwan loses out in the short term with a delay of several months on an ECFA, I think it wins in the long term by establishing a relationship with the mainland in which, as much as possible, the mainland is unable to use economic levers to manipulate Taiwanese security decision-making. Starting to give China veto power over Taiwanese military purchases now means China will take an even harder line on these sales in the future. If that's how China will behave, do the Taiwanese people really want their economy to be even more dependent on China than it is already?

    If we really want to help Taiwan weather possible effects of Chinese economic pressure, we should be thinking about a U.S.-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement, not about asking Taiwan to sacrifice its security for the sake of pleasing Beijing.

  5. (And perhaps I should have stressed this more: this is about perception, which means that timing *does* matter. The message sent by delaying this purchase until after an ECFA is signed is a dangerous one. Particularly since China might drag out ECFA negotiations specifically to prevent Taiwan from moving forward with this deal.)

  6. Thank you for your nice posting.
    it is really helpful to us.
    such a nice topics.


  7. Hey Dan,

    It's been a busy Christmas week -- even in Taiwan! -- so forgive the delay.

    First, in response to your thought experiment (i.e. restricting US military spending): I think the situations are not comparable, thus making the hypothetical non-instructive. A) The US is hardly in a geographically or militarily vulnerable position from China. Taiwan, conversely, is overwhelming outnumbered by Chinese everything -- ships, submarines, missiles, soldiers, technology, etc. So no single arms sale form the US is going to chance the balance across the Strait. B) The national future of the US is not in question relative to China. There is some possibility -- though reasonable people could argue over percentiles -- that Taiwan could be increasingly more integrated with China. (I decidedly don't use "unify" here because that is not the point. The point is that the two countries' futures are more integrated at a cultural, political, and economic level than the US/China.)

    Second, you wrote, "If we really want to help Taiwan weather possible effects of Chinese economic pressure, we should be thinking about a U.S.-Taiwan Free Trade Agreement, not about asking Taiwan to sacrifice its security for the sake of pleasing Beijing."

    I agree with a US-Taiwan FTA storngly. However, the ECFA is *precisely* designed to give Taiwan the ability to more easily contract other FTAs. Therefore, this raises the significance of the deal even moreso (via more economic benefits to the Taiwanese). As I mention in the article, the benefits of the ECFA are far beyond what is immediately calculated.

    And as for the second part of your above comment, this still begs the question of how much these arms really help Taiwan security. They do not. That is critical here. This arms deal is symbolic. Therefore, no one is asking "Taiwan to sacrifice its security for the sake of pleasing Beijing." Indeed, the arms do not enhance security significantly; therefore, there is no sacrifice to be had -- except for marginal political effects on Obama and Ma.

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