Implications of U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan in a Shifting Global Balance of Power

The global power positions of the United States, Taiwan and China have drastically changed in the past decade due to a series of events, changing dynamics in the triangular relationship as well as causing a major shift in the balance of powers in the Asia-Pacific region...

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U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan and its Implications on U.S.-China Relations

I. Introduction

The global power positions of the United States, Taiwan and China have drastically changed in the past decade due to a series of events, changing dynamics in the triangular relationship as well as causing a major shift in the balance of powers in the Asia-Pacific region.  The United States and Taiwan, officially referred to as the Republic of China, currently maintain strong economic and cultural relations, despite the lack of official diplomatic ties. Ever since the U.S. switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in the 1979 U.S.- P.R.C. Joint Communiqué, which acknowledged the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal government of China, relations have continued unofficially under the Taiwan Relations Act, established in 1979. The act addresses social, economic and security issues and stipulates that the U.S. will “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character…in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability” (Taiwan Relations Act). American representatives have stated that they hope that the arms sales will put Taiwan in a position to determine their future without fear of forceful coercion from China.

These sales, however, are contentious globally and domestically, as China has repeatedly claimed Taiwan as part of their territory and has called for an end to the sales. The U.S. struggles between maintaining its arms supply to Taiwan and acquiescing to China’s increasingly assertive demands.  I argue that it is in U.S. interests to both continue arms sales and also to strengthen its military relationship with Taiwan. Doing so would maintain the current global balance of power, stabilize the region and demonstrate America’s commitment to democracies around the world.

This paper begins with the historical background of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. I then provide a current overview of the political landscape of American, Taiwanese and Chinese interests.  The next sections then address the implications of continuing arms sales for both the U.S. - Taiwan relationship and U.S.’ regional relationships. Finally, I will present the significance of the issues previously examined and possible ways to progress the partnership.

II. Historical Overview

Taiwan-ROC-Flag-over-Weapons.jpgWith the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. has agreed to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability ” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist to any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan” (Taiwan Relations Act). The U.S. conducts the arms sales with the goal of a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question between Taiwan and China. Although the U.S. has never taken an official stance in support of unification or independence, it advocates for self-determination for the future of the island. Ronald Reagan, believed that the arms sales would allow Taiwan to be in a position where it could negotiate with China on equal footing, without fear of coercion through military attack. Since 1979, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have reached $28.8 billion (Kimball). Undoubtedly, The U.S. has been a long time guarantor of Taiwan’s security for several decades. Taiwan is also an important military partner. The U.S. collaborates with the Taiwanese military in areas such as intelligence collection, drills and training (Hickey). In an interview with American Institute in Taiwan, Political Section Chief William H. Klein commended the long history of U.S. - Taiwan relations, stating “no one would have expected that the U.S. would still be selling arms to Taiwan this far down the road.”

III. Present Situation

However, whether the U.S. should continue these sales and military cooperation is becoming increasingly controversial.  Neither the Bush nor Obama administration has demonstrated strong leadership in maintaining the relationship, despite the fact that President Obama has advocated increasing the U.S.’ role in Asia through “rebalancing.” Through this initiative, the administration strives to gain greater influence in the Asia-Pacific, a region increasingly dominated by China. Taiwan’s place in this “rebalancing“ act remains unclear. Many academics debate whether the U.S. should adopt a strategy of gradual abandonment or further engagement with Taiwan. Those advocating abandonment cite China as a major influence in their reasoning. China vehemently opposes U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, citing “territorial integrity” and an assault to Chinese sovereignty as reasons against the sales.  China has experienced an unprecedented rise in global power in the past years and is a valuable potential partner for the U.S. on many international issues. China has exercised their increased global influence by adopting an increasingly assertive regional strategy and more aggressive calls for a halt in arms sales.

To further complicate issues, the dynamics of Taiwan and China relations have been affected by changes in administration and shifting political circumstances. The two states have grown closer since executive power switched from Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) President Chen Shui-bian to Kuomintang Party’s (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou in 2008. The KMT has claimed eventual unification with China as one of its goals. President Ma and his administration have expanded transportation, trade and communication links, including the opening of direct flights between China and Taiwan, and the establishment of free trade agreements like the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and the recent Cross-strait Services Trade Agreement last summer. China has moved away from hardball tactics and harsh rhetoric and towards a “hearts and minds” strategy to win over the Taiwanese. Beijing has opened the Chinese market to Taiwanese agricultural goods, given preferential treatment to Taiwanese students in Chinese universities and provided low-cost loans to Taiwanese investors. Beijing hopes to use this economic cooperation as a way to open future political dialogue on the status of Taiwan (Wang).  However, according to Taiwan Thinktank polls, a majority (64%) of Taiwanese do not support the most recent trade agreement, the Cross-strait Services Trade Agreement (Tsai).

Despite the thawing of tensions, China has not slowed their military enlargement, nor decreased the number of missiles aimed across the strait. According to military analysts, China currently has at continues to increase the number of ballistic missiles aimed across the Taiwan Strait, now estimated at around 1,600. China is expected to be capable of launching a full cross-strait attack by 2020, using a combination of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) combat and modernized military tools “aimed at developing a credible deterrent to third party intervention,” known as Area- Access Area-Denial (A2/AD) (CNA ).  China’s buildup of navel forces, now the largest in Asia, reflects their A2/AD capability of preventing opposing forces from entering an area and limiting the opposition’s freedom of action in land, air, space, sea and cyber. China’s sea power could be used to deny access to the “first island chain” off the mainland, an area including Taiwan. China’s continued cross-strait military buildup and refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan demonstrates that it still values the idea of coercive force towards achieving unification. China may not necessarily plan on activating these capabilities, but can rather use them as a deterrent. In other words, Beijing calculates that if more Taiwanese fear war with a powerful PLA, Taiwan would be less likely to declare independence (Wang). A2/AD also poses major challenges for the U.S. to operate in the Asia- Pacific and imperils “regional powers’ ability to deny the PLA air superiority and command of the sea” (Stokes). Without an adequate U.S. response to A2/AD capabilities, the balance of power in the Asia- Pacific region would be further dominated by China.

IV. Implications for U.S.-Taiwan Relations

The question of whether or not the U.S. should continue to sell arms to Taiwan is growing in complexity and relevance to today’s issues. China is now the second largest economy and is a sought after diplomatic partner for conflict management, climate change agreements and economic cooperation (Wang). As a result, it has become more assertive by challenging the existing U.S. led international system by aggressively pursuing their foreign policy agenda. China has called to replace the dollar as the international reserve currency, pushed the boundaries of former interpretations of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and complicated paths towards peaceful resolution of territorial disputes with Taiwan and Japan. Some politicians and academics have suggested that China’s rise in power and increase in cross- strait trade will inevitably lead towards Taiwan’s unification with China and that the U.S. should halt arms sales in order to partner with China on other issues. On the other hand, prominent American analysts argue that a predicted unification is a self-fulfilling prophecy and asserted that involving Taiwan in the “rebalancing to Asia” would actually be a strategic benefit to the U.S. (Stokes).


Analysts in support of a continued relationship with Taiwan argue that a deepened partnership would help the U.S. project power against China’s A2/AD capabilities.  The U.S. has developed an Air-Sea Battle concept, in which the combined abilities of air and naval forces will work with alliances and coalition partnerships in response to the changing regional security landscape. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. stated “Services should integrate our efforts with each other and with our civilian counterparts” and “work seamlessly with old allies and new friends.” The U.S. thus far has not given Taiwan a role in their rebalancing initiative and rather focused on other allies in the region such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.  However, the U.S. is missing a valuable opportunity to enhance their defense strategy through an enhanced partnership with Taiwan. Taiwan is the most willing and able to develop forces needed to counter A2/AD capabilities and holds a strategically useful geographic position. The Taiwanese Navy has a firm understanding of points of failure in the PLA’s systems and is familiar with undersea geography of the Western Pacific Ocean (Stokes).  Additionally, Taiwan’s expertise in technology, particularly in information and communications technology, gives it strong potential to be an industrial partner (Stokes). Cooperating with Taiwan in defense technology research and development would allow the U.S. to reduce costs in this time of budgetary constraints and attain better technology.

China’s rise in political, economic and military power has made it even more imperative for Taiwan to strengthen its relations with the U.S. Over the years, U.S. support has been integral to the survival of Taiwan. Halting arms sales in the current environment would have tremendous implications for the island and the region in general. Strong self-defense capabilities are necessary Taiwan’s political autonomy. Taiwan cannot rely on outside support- China’s A2/AD capabilities could seriously delay any U.S. or regional ally’s attempt to provide military support. Yet the U.S. has refused to sell Taiwan the new model of F-16 aircrafts and opted to upgrade their existing set instead. In an effort to maintain an adequate level of self-defense, Taiwan has started developing its own weapons and pursued arms sales from other countries (CNA). China’s military strength and increased uncertainty of U.S. support have reduced Taiwan’s confidence in dealings with China. Furthermore, in the past 6 years, Taiwan has gradually reduced the percentage of GDP dedicated to defense. The resulting asymmetrical power balance runs contrary to the goals of the TRA by decreasing Taiwan’s chances of self-determination.

V. Implications for U.S. Regional Relations

The U.S.-Taiwan relationship is more than a bilateral partnership–it acts as a measure of confidence in the U.S to defend the region against Chinese aggression. In 1995 and 1996, China sent two sets of missiles in the Taiwan Strait with the intention of showing their disapproval towards the Taiwanese government’s activities.  The U.S. responded with the largest show of military power since the Vietnam War, by sending two aircraft carrier groups into the region (Scobell). America’s firm response boosted the region’s confidence in the U.S. and inspired other regional powers, including Japan, Singapore and the Philippines to increase their own military size and enhance military relationships with the U.S. (Royce). In other words, other states look towards the U.S.-Taiwan relationship as a measurement of U.S. regional involvement. If the U.S. shows that they are willing to defend freedom of navigation and counter Chinese territorial and resource claims in the region, other countries are more willing to invest in their own counterbalancing measures against China. A strong U.S. - Taiwan relationship is beneficial not only to the two parties directly involved, but have far-reaching consequences that will contribute to the goals of the U.S.’ “rebalancing” to Asia.

VI. Conclusion

The U.S.-Taiwan relationship is regarded as one of the closest and intriguing bilateral relationships in global relations today, with arms sales playing a definitive role. Taiwan depends on a strong military in order to hold real negotiations with China and resist being forced to accommodate Beijing’s demands. Although Taiwan and China’s growing economic interdependence reduces chances of conflict, Taiwan’s democratic system still represents an existential challenge to China’s authoritarian CCP rule and is very much under increasing threat. Taiwan’s current Sunflower Student Movement, protesting a trade agreement between China and the Taiwan, demonstrates how cross-strait tension has manifested into the public sphere. The U.S. should show its commitment to Taiwan and the region by addressing Taiwan’s defensive needs as agreed upon in the Taiwan Relations Act. The Taiwan Policy Act of 2013, H.R. 419, is currently awaiting U.S. House of Representative consideration. This bill enhances the bilateral security relationship by authorizing the sale of new F-16 C/D aircraft to Taiwan and approving the transfer of decommissioned missile frigates (Ros-Lehtinen).  American leaders should not let this important bilateral relationship stagnant any longer and take action on this legislation.

Opponents to the arms sales argue that the U.S. would benefit from gaining a stronger relationship with China. However, few actually believe that taking such a step would result in substantial Chinese concession on issues of international interest such as cyber security, human rights and environmental issues (Royce). Rather, abandoning Taiwan would hurt U.S. credibility and endanger other small democracies around the world. It is clear that a continued U.S.-Taiwan military alliance would preserve a more balanced U.S.-China relationship, increase stability in the Asia-Pacific region and sustain Taiwan’s future autonomy.

Marisa Tsai is a student at the School of International Relations, University of Southern California
Works Cited

CNA staff writer. “China able to attack Taiwan by 2020: report. Taipei Times. Oct 2013. Web. 7 Feb 2014.

Hickey, Dennis. “U.S. military move to affect Taiwan.”Taipei Times. Aug 2013. Web.  7 Feb

Kimball, Daryl. "U.S. Conventional Arms Sales to Taiwan." Arms Control Association. N.p., Oct. 2012. Web. 26 Aug. 2013.

Ros-Lehtinen, Ileana. "H.R. 419: Taiwan Policy Act of 2013." GovTrack.U.S.. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

Royce, Rep. Ed. "The Folly of "Managed" Taiwan Ties." The Diplomat. N.p., 12 Jan. 2012. Web. 17 Mar. 2014.

Stokes, Mark, and Hsiao Russell. "Why U.S. Military Needs Taiwan." The Diplomat. N.p., 13 Apr. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

Scobell, Andrew. Show of Force: The PLA and the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis. Stanford University, Jan. 1999. Web.

“Taiwan Relations Act." FAPA - Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2014

Tsai, Marisa. Taiwanese Attitudes Towards Cross-Strait Relations: Findings from the Polls. Rep. Taipei, Taiwan: Taiwan Thinktank, 2013. Print.

Wang, Yuan-kang. "China’s Growing Strength, Taiwan's Diminishing Options."The Brookings Institution. N.p., Nov. 2010. Web. 16 Mar. 2014.

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