U.S. Preparing New Arms Sales to Taiwan

The first deal in four years will raise tensions with China.

What Uncle Sam won't be selling.

Photographer: SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. government is close to announcing that it will sell about $1 billion worth of military equipment to Taiwan, the first new sale in more than four years. The sale is likely to cause a rift in Washington’s relationship with Beijing, which opposes any military support for Taipei.

The Obama administration hasn't decided when to notify Congress about the pending sale, one U.S. official told me. The administration is bracing for a strong negative reaction from the Chinese Communist Party, which considers Taiwan a renegade province and has opposed U.S. arms sales to Taiwan for decades. Owing to that, the sale could be formally announced after mid-December, following the upcoming climate change conference in Paris, officials said. Also, the U.S. government wants to allow a sufficient interval before Taiwan’s upcoming election in mid-January.

On Capitol Hill, leaders in both parties have been prodding the administration to follow through with the sale, despite the risks of tension with China. Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Ben Cardin and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain wrote to President Obama last week to press him on the issue.

“America’s long-standing commitment to Taiwan is a multifaceted and bipartisan effort that includes many components, all of which must be exercised as we seek to support and safeguard the ability of the people of Taiwan to determine their own future,” they wrote. “One critical component is U.S. military assistance and arms sales to Taiwan.”

The Chinese military has been modernizing at a rapid pace, the senators noted. And although the Obama administration has sold about $12 billion worth of military equipment to Taiwan since coming to power, the last sale was over four years ago, which constitutes the longest gap between sales since the Taiwan Relations Act passed Congress in 1979.

The details of the arms package the U.S. will offer Taiwan have not been set, but U.S. officials told me that Washington will likely offer Taipei transfers of missile frigates, about a dozen AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles, one replacement AH-64 Apache helicopter and munitions including Stinger, Javelin and TOW missiles.

In Obama's first term, Congress pushed the administration to sell Taiwan newer versions of the F-16 fighter planes, even holding up the nominations of top State Department officials to make the point. The administration never agreed, instead offering Taiwan upgrades to its existing F-16 fleet. This time around, fighter planes are not on the menu at all.

A U.S. State Department official told me the administration does not comment on arms sales for foreign governments until after notifying Congress. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

If and when the sale is announced, the Chinese government is expected to react harshly. "The Taiwan Question concerns China's core interests and remains the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations. The Chinese side is firmly opposed to the arms sales by the U.S. to Taiwan," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang said last December. 

The Chinese government could cancel some upcoming military exchanges with the U.S., as it has in the past. Or the Chinese could try to punish U.S. defense firms that are involved with the arms sales through sanctions, although the involvement of such firms in Chinese government business is limited. 

The Project 2049 Institute, an Asia-focused think tank in Washington, did a review of Chinese reactions to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in 2012, following the last major sale. It found that the Chinese retaliatory measures are temporary and the two sides always go back to business as usual.

“Past behavior indicates that China is unlikely to challenge any fundamental U.S. interests in response to any future releases of significant military articles or services to Taiwan,” the report states. “The U.S. therefore retains considerable freedom of action in abiding by the Taiwan Relations Act.”

The Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances made to Taiwan in 1982 by Ronald Reagan mandate, among other things, that the U.S. will never set a date for ending U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and will never consult China in advance before selling arms to Taiwan. The law also says the U.S. will provide Taiwan arms “to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

Some experts and former officials say the administration is failing to uphold that commitment out of concern that more robust sales could disrupt U.S.-China relations or the relationship between Beijing and Taipei.

“Given the unabated build-up opposite Taiwan on the part of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, it lacks credibility that we are keeping pace with Taiwan's needs,” said Randy Schriver, who served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

The Obama administration is right to consider the effect new arms sales to Taiwan could have. But after seven years of improvement in cross-strait relations and four-year gap in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, China's continuing build-up of its military capability opposite Taiwan has made its intentions clear. It continues to push the balance of power toward the Chinese side. The question is whether the U.S. will honor its commitment to respond.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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