The US$6 billion arms sale to Taiwan announced by Washington on Friday will not bring much to Taiwan in terms of its ability to defend itself. All the items in the package, with the exception of the 60 UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, had been long approved — and then delayed — by the George W. Bush administration. In other words, the Taiwanese military is running to stay in place, while China has continued to sprint ahead with the modernization of its military and increased targeting of Taiwan.
None of the items in the package, not even the PAC-3s, will make a substantial difference. Nothing underscores that point more than the fact that the 10 RTM-84L Harpoon missiles and two ATM-84L Harpoon missiles included in the package, which cost US$37 million, are for training purposes only, as they do not come with warheads (they are unarmed variants of the RGM/AGM-84A). What is needed most, and what the US appears unlikely to provide anytime soon, is newer-generation fighter aircraft like F-16C/Ds.
At best, and as I’ve argued before, this was an expression of US commitment to the defense of Taiwan, as per the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). But it comes short of providing the types of weapon that are necessary to ensure Taiwan’s ability to defend itself in line with the scope of the Chinese threat — also a TRA commitment. And it comes in the wake of another announcement by Washington, made earlier this month, that it had downgraded China as an espionage priority.
Still, despite these shortcomings, Beijing went through the motions and threatened this and that, including the suspension of Sino-American military links and sanctions targeting US companies. In the past, when China had a fit, it was over arms sales that made a concrete difference in the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait. Now, however, it’s in a position where it can throw a fit, and make Washington pause, over practically inconsequential (though still expensive) weapons sales. There are rumors, furthermore, that this could be the first and last arms sale to Taiwan under the Barack Obama administration.
If China can brew such a storm over what is, by all accounts, an arms sale that was meant to please all sides and minimize the damage to Sino-US relations, then the chances of Taiwan getting the weapons it really needs to defend itself look alarmingly slim.