Taiwan has an “urgent” need for a new fleet of F-16s, at least according to Senator Richard Lugar. On April 1, he wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton warning that “Taiwan has legitimate defense needs and its existing capabilities are decaying.” A National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) assessment submitted in February of 2010 agreed that Taiwan’s ability to “deny the People’s Republic of China (PRC) air superiority” was diminishing. Nonetheless, Senator Lugar’s call for further arms sales to Taiwan should be put into the broader framework of America’s strategic relations with the “two Chinas.”
Last January, the United States approved an arms deal with Taiwan totaling some $6.4 billion in weapons and training. In response, the PRC froze military to military relations with the US and cut off defense talks. When the US announced a $6 billion plus weapons sale to Taiwan in October of 2008, the PRC reacted the same way.
This is both dangerous and foolish. But it should not be unexpected.
China’s defense ministry has been preoccupied for much of the past 30 years with the task of modernization. Over the past decade, however, this burden has begun to ease. China’s military leadership and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been able to shift its focus and play a much more aggressive and assertive role in shaping China’s foreign policy.
Moreover, the United States has not been entirely clear when dealing with the issue of Taiwan. Official statements about Taiwan are carefully worded both to avoid recognizing Beijing’s claim to the island and to avoid rejecting it and risking retaliation.
If the status quo is acceptable for the US, then nothing needs to change. Arms sales to Taiwan can continue to cause a dangerous silence a between the American and Chinese militaries. But if the US wants to have more constructive and nuanced relations with the PRC, then it needs to learn to decouple Taiwan from other issues–especially regular military to military communications. In this effort we can follow the PRC’s example. China has had great success in isolating human rights from economic relations in its bilateral negotiations.
As Senator Lugar and others begin to increase pressure for another arms deal with Taiwan, the prospect for another military-relations freeze is growing. But it doesn’t have to be. On Monday, the US and China held the seventh working-level meeting of their defense ministries in Beijing. If they are really interested in national security, they’ll consider talking even when their politicians won’t.
– Jordan D’Amato