Sunday, January 31, 2010

Much ado over an inconsequential arms sale

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.

3 comments:

Thomas said...

Unless Obama starts to hemorrage support and needs to appear strong in an election year. Remember that George HW Bush did not sell the first batch of F-16s to Taiwan because of his commitment to Taiwan's security. He wanted to look strong at a time when it looked as though Clinton might usurp him.

I wish that there had been something more substantial in this sale. It is not as though the Americans are not aware of the threat that China poses to Taiwan and the effect that the loss of Taiwan would have on the US' position in Asia.

My hope is that the F-16 sale is indeed just being held off for a rainy day -- a time when someone wants to make a strong political message. I wish I could be optimistic.

And what is going on with those diesel sub plans?

Anonymous said...

may be much ado, but surely China is starting to test its new power. Pomfret's piece ('China's Strident Tone...') in The Washington Post is interesting regarding why China is becoming increasingly arrogant.

Alton said...

The delay in the arms sale was due to the KMT-controlled legislature.

George W Bush approved the sale, based on Taiwan's requests, early in his first term. As usual, the US took flak for this from China.

Taiwan's KMT legislators, acting en masse, then blocked the purchase for seven years through over forty votes. Suddenly the KMT, if you believed its rhetoric, was populated by a bunch of pacifist flower children. KMT-sponsored protests in Taiwan featured appearances by a skull-faced Uncle Sam brandishing his evil weapons.

A year before Taiwan's 2008 presidential election, the KMT, figuring it was time to start looking like a serious governing party, dropped the antics and approved the sale. They then found Bush content to let them beg his successor for the stuff.

Message delivered. And received, I hope.