Shadow Government

Arms to Taiwan, and a course correction in Asia?

The Obama administration’s decision to sell a robust weapons package to Taiwan is a positive step, and may indicate a welcome course correction in the Obama administration’s China policy and even its strategic posture in Asia.  The first year of the administration’s China policy was predicated on some assumptions that are now proving to be ...

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s decision to sell a robust weapons package to Taiwan is a positive step, and may indicate a welcome course correction in the Obama administration’s China policy and even its strategic posture in Asia. 

The first year of the administration’s China policy was predicated on some assumptions that are now proving to be wrong, namely that conciliatory gestures by the U.S. would be reciprocated by China. This was not to be. Behind all of the murkiness of Beijing’s decision-making lies a simple fact: The Chinese government will act in its own interests. So American steps such as downplaying human rights, elevating China’s role in the G-20 by flirting with the "G-2" concept, agreeing to Chinese censorship of President Obama’s Beijing visit, downgrading intelligence collection, and supplicating China to continue financing U.S. debt, brought little positive reciprocation from China.  In fact, the only measure that the United States took in the past year that displeased China was to slap tariffs on Chinese tires — which in economic terms actually undermined U.S. interests. China, for its part, when not engaging in cyber-attacks on Google, offered little or no new steps of help on issues including North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Iran’s nuclear program, human rights, or even the Copenhagen climate summit. 

Meanwhile, relations between China and Taiwan are comparatively stable. So why might the US rock the sampan now with these arms sales? Precisely because maintaining Taiwan’s capacity to defend itself is vital to maintaining the peaceful trajectory in China-Taiwan relations. If Taiwan is able to deter the potential Chinese use of force, than the only realistic option in the relationship will be peaceful coexistence built on growing economic ties and political rapprochement. Whereas if China’s military modernization and expansion eclipses Taiwan’s defense capabilities, China might find adventurism more enticing.

 

The arms sales to Taiwan should be seen in light of the broader U.S. grand strategy in Asia, stretching back to the end of the Cold War. It is based on maintaining strong ties with traditional and new allies and partners such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and yes, Taiwan, while simultaneously helping encourage China’s economic growth and peaceful integration into the international system. In the past year this strategy has started to wobble, particularly with U.S.-Japan ties fraying, and other Asian powers such as India being uncertain of the Obama administration’s commitment.  This arms package to Taiwan is a needed reassurance to the region that the U.S. will not abandon its friends in Asia. 

As this excellent Washington Post analysis by John Pomfret describes, China’s pique at the Taiwan arms sales is of a piece with its growing chest-thumping.  The article cites a new study by the Centre for European Reform, How should Europe respond to China’s strident rise? and includes a bracing quote from author Charles Grant about China’s treatment of European overtures:  "The Europeans have competed to be China’s favored friend, but then they get put in the doghouse one by one."  Which can mean overt gestures such as lambasting Angela Merkel for meeting with the Dalai Lama, or more insidious measures such as a concerted espionage campaign targeting British businesses — the darker side of Chinese state capitalism.  At a minimum, the European embargo on arms sales to China won’t be lifted anytime soon. 

On its current trajectory, China may be creating a situation virtually unprecedented in post-war history: one of the primary engines of the global economy also becomes a threat to international peace and security. As Ashley Tellis argues in a new German Marshall Fund-Legatum Institute paper, China "continues to prosper precisely because of its participation in the trading order managed by Washington, yet remains enmeshed in a variety of disputes with its major Asian rivals (as well as other smaller neighbours), while increasingly posing a serious and persistent military threat to the principal guardian of that order, America itself."

There is now a convergence of interests among the United States, Europe, Japan, and India around the common goal of encouraging China’s responsible rise and discouraging its mischief, real and potential. This can be part of a comprehensive policy framework in Asia to advance the triune goods of liberty, prosperity, and security — which are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive.

I saw a small but telling example of this in 2005, when as a State Department staff member I travelled to Vietnam to help negotiate the release of prisoners of conscience and policy improvements in religious freedom. In one meeting, a senior Vietnamese official candidly told me that because of their fears of China’s growing hegemony, Vietnam had decided to align itself closer with the United States — and so would make the religious freedom improvements that were a priority to the United States. Unfortunately, Vietnam has since gotten the message that human rights are not a priority for the Obama administration, and has cracked down again on human rights dissidents.

In the short-term, U.S.-China relations may continue to experience friction, as President Obama’s long overdue meeting with the Dalai Lama approaches. But over the longer term, a consistent policy based on strength, engagement, and principle will elicit respect in Beijing and appreciation around the world.

Will Inboden is executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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