Taiwan Risks Getting In Over Its Head


Apr 24, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on April 24, 2001.

American officials are expected to meet today with representatives of the Taiwan government to convey Washington's response to Taipei's yearly request for weapons and other forms of military assistance. This annual decision is undertaken as part of Washington's commitment to preserve the island's self-defense capacity in the face of growing Chinese military capabilities and the ongoing--and arguably worsening--Beijing-Taipei dispute.

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 together.

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 weapons.

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.

Michael D. Swaine is a senior China analyst at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica

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