America’s defense relationship with Taiwan is again causing friction in Washington’s dealings with Beijing. Earlier this month China rejected a request from U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to visit the mainland, citing recent U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. He rightly noted the sales issue is “far from new in this relationship.” But the fact is that the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship has never been more vulnerable, and the Chinese know it—and are taking advantage of the situation.
The key U.S.-Taiwan problem is that Washington has made changes in its process for selling arms to Taiwan that increase incentives for Beijing to raise a fuss. Traditionally, the U.S. had announced Taiwan weapons sales as the deals were completed, regardless of the condition of broader U.S.-China ties at that moment. Yet starting under the Bush administration in 2008, the State Department was allowed to sit on deals before announcing them to the Congress. State would wait for the “least worst time” to release the details; the yardstick for measuring “least worst time” would be the state of relations with China.
This change was part of an attempt to reduce Chinese objections to arms sales by announcing them only during periods of less intense bilateral U.S.-China activity—the idea being to avoid rocking the boat ahead of summits or amid negotiations where the U.S. hoped to cooperate on other, generally unrelated, issues with China. However, institutionalizing such concern over China’s reaction to Taiwan arms sales has had the effect of giving the Chinese greater leverage over how the U.S. implements its security commitment to Taiwan. Meanwhile, as high-level bilateral exchanges continue to multiply the windows available for vital arms sales narrow. Arms sales effectively froze during part of 2008 and again in 2009.
Not surprisingly, Beijing is trying to take advantage of this new opportunity to shape events. The mere rumor of an impending package in early January of this year led to increasingly shrill rhetoric from China. When the package was finally released later in the month, China threatened unspecified penalties for U.S. companies involved in the sales, as well as damage to bilateral initiatives such as cooperation on Iran and climate change. Beijing has not backed up any of these threats with action, at least not yet. But the fact that threats were made at all shows that far from smoothing the water, Washington’s new strategy creates incentives for Beijing to act out.
Council President Rupert Hammond-Chambers comments on Chinese opposition to Taiwan arms sales in an editorial in The Wall Street Journal.
Editorial: “Take China Out of the Driver’s Seat on Taiwan” (PDF)