Wednesday, October 22, 2014

From Gunboats to Nuts and Bolts

The age of major U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is probably over. But Washington can still play a key role as Taipei shifts to indigenous production 

Despite the recent optimism expressed by some of the participants at the 13th annual U.S.-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference held earlier this month in Williamsburg, Virginia, the days when the U.S. sold billion dollars of military platforms to Taiwan are probably over. It has been more than three years since the U.S. released a major arms package for the island, the longest period since the early 1990s. Barring a radical shift in Washington, we can expect that the U.S. government will maintain its current strategy of seeking to avoid angering Beijing with major sales of military equipment to Taiwan — and this despite a hardening stance in the U.S. vis-à-vis a China that, after years of cajoling, has become increasingly belligerent. 

For those in Taiwan who contend that China remains a major military threat (the authoritarianism of President Xi Jinping should dispel any belief to the contrary), Washington’s reluctance to directly sell to Taiwan the defense articles that it needs — submarines, 4.5/5th-generation aircraft, modern surface combatants and so on — can be alarming, as major arms sales have historically carried the important symbolic value of political support. A decision by Washington to no longer sell major weapons systems to Taipei could therefore be interpreted as a sign that the U.S. is ready to “abandon” Taiwan. 

But don’t throw in the towel just yet. An end to major arms sales — one of the lynchpins of U.S.-Taiwan relations since 1979 — doesn’t necessarily mean that Taipei has lost the support of its longstanding ally. Rather, this development reflects the current geopolitical situation, one in which China now ranks as the world’s second-largest economy in a global economic system where Beijing carries a lot more weight than it did just a decade ago. 

My article, published today on Thinking Taiwan, continues here. (Photo by the author)

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