This commentary appeared in Los Angeles Times on April 24, 2001.
Although always a sensitive issue, this year's arms sale decision could prove
to be especially troublesome. First, the number and sophistication of the arms
under consideration by Washington is unprecedented--including, most notably,
submarines, long-range reconnaissance anti-submarine aircraft and land-based
ballistic missile defense systems. Aegis radar-equipped destroyers were also
on the list, but on Monday the Bush administration decided to delay the sale.
China's leaders have repeatedly warned against the sale of such advanced weapons,
especially the Aegis destroyers. They fear that such ships will serve as the
basis for a future naval-based missile defense system that could significantly
reduce the political and military leverage produced by China's growing ballistic
missile force and, more important, draw the U.S. and Taiwan militaries closer
Second, the decision comes on the heels of increased China-U.S. tensions resulting
from the recent collision of a Chinese jet fighter and a U.S. surveillance aircraft.
This incident has prompted some Americans to call for stronger efforts to punish
or deter Chinese behavior through sanctions or military means. As part of this
approach, some U.S. observers insist that Taipei should receive virtually every
type of military assistance it requests.
An exclusive focus on military deterrence by the U.S. will likely increase,
rather than diminish, the chances of a future conflict over Taiwan. China's
leaders would almost certainly view such a one-sided policy as an unambiguous
confirmation of American support for an independent Taiwan. To prevent this,
Beijing might significantly increase military and political pressure on the
island, seek greater leverage against the U.S. by creating serious problems
in other areas of the globe, or even launch a preemptive attack on Taiwan before
the sophisticated weapons could be deployed.
The Beijing-Taipei dispute is fundamentally a political--not military--problem.
Hence, U.S. arms sale policy toward Taiwan should be conceived and implemented
as part of an overall strategy designed not only to deter but also to reassure
both Beijing and Taipei and to reduce their emphasis on military instruments.
On the deterrence side, arms sales should, of course, serve to prevent China
from gaining a decisive military advantage over Taiwan that would either permit
Beijing to coerce the island into submission or tempt an outright attack.
Such sales and related assistance, however, should also be structured to facilitate
U.S. efforts to maintain a level of military and political leverage over Taiwan
sufficient to discourage the island's leaders from pushing independence or indefinitely
resisting political discussions with Beijing. A completely secure and militarily
independent Taiwan would almost certainly diminish Taipei's desire to initiate
a much-needed dialogue with Beijing. This, in turn, would prompt China to greatly
intensify its military and political pressure on the island.
On the reassurance side, arms sales should not be so extensive or deep as to
lead China to conclude that Washington now regards Taipei as an ally or security
partner and has thus, by implication, rejected the notion that Taiwan is part
of "one China." Arms sales also should not encourage Taiwan to move further
toward independence in the belief that Washington would be obligated to back
its efforts. At the same time, such sales should be ample enough to reassure
Taipei that it need not undertake potentially desperate and dangerous military
actions to ensure its security, such as the development of weapons of mass destruction.
Beijing would likely coerce or attack Taiwan to prevent the deployment of such
The U.S. should reinforce this balanced approach to arms sales by undertaking
political initiatives designed to build trust on all sides and thereby facilitate
a cross-strait dialogue. A first step in this direction might include an effort
to reach an understanding with Beijing over military deployments on both sides
of the strait. Although anathema to Taipei and previously rejected by Washington,
it is perhaps time to consider such a dialogue in the context of political confidence-building
measures directed at Beijing and Taipei.
Unfortunately, given the adverse impact of the recent air incident on China-U.S.
perceptions, Washington will likely rely increasingly on deterring Beijing militarily
and politically while seeking primarily to reassure, not deter, Taipei. This
will almost certainly strengthen the belief among many Chinese leaders that
a military conflict with the U.S. over Taiwan is virtually inevitable.
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