Last week, Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the Chinese general staff, met in Washington, D.C. with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss the future of U.S.-China military relations. As they had in years past, these otherwise productive and good-natured deliberations were soured by disagreements with regard to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. As important as U.S.-China relations are, abandonment of U.S. military support of Taiwan would be a destabilizing force in cross-Strait relations.
The arms deal at the center of this conflict is the proposed U.S. sale of eight diesel submarines and up to 66 F-16s to Taiwan. Although it sounds impressive, the technology contained within these weapons systems does not match evenly with Chinese Type 092 and 094 nuclear submarines, or the recently unveiled J-20 stealth fighter. Far from achieving parity, this arms acquisition — the most recent of many since the passing of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 — gives Taiwan the ability to mount a modest defense to deter further acts of Chinese aggression.
According to Taiwanese intelligence, China currently has over 1,500 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwanese cities. The arsenal is comprised of Dong Feng 11s and Dong Feng 15s, short-range missiles whose intended target is unmistakable considering they are based approximately 100 miles from Taiwan. Without some sort of deterrence, Taiwan would have little to no ability to negotiate in the face Chinese military dominance.
Last year the U.S. approved a $6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan that included Patriot missiles, UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters, Osprey-class mine hunting ships, Harpoon missiles and enhancements and support for Taiwan's command and control communications. As a result, China ceased all military dialogue with the United States. The U.S. cannot let the prospect of a Chinese reaction similar to this influence its obligations to Taiwanese self-defense.
If U.S. arms sales to Taiwan did stop, they would certainly go elsewhere for military aid. Considering how moody Chinese leadership has been with the U.S. — a county with whom it shares many economic and financial interests — China's reaction to an alternative supplier of arms might not be as benign. Considering the myriad U.S. interests present in cross-Straight relations, they would be best served by maintaining our current policies of arms sales — despite the occasional posturing on China's part.
During one of his meetings in Washington, Bingde expressed bemusement as to why Taiwan would "need U.S. weapons sales to guarantee its security," when "Taiwan is a part of Chinese territory." That a Chinese leader would fail — consciously or unconsciously — to understand the plight of Taiwan, a country blatantly in the crosshairs of a mainland aggressor, simply affirms the need for increasing a stabilizing deterrent in cross-Strait relations. Taiwan may never need the weapons we sell them, but they — as well as U.S. involvement in cross-Strait negotiations — will go a long way towards giving Taiwan a stronger presence in negotiations and bringing the China-Taiwan standoff to a peaceful conclusion.
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