Reports circulating in Chinese and Taiwanese online services in recent days are once more raising the spectre of US arms sales to Taiwan, adding pressure and rancour to an already unstable political situation.
The authorities in Taiwan are said to be celebrating confirmation of the US government placing an F-16V production order with Lockheed Martin that included 66 aircraft for the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF) – the largest single sale since the Trump administration took power, which MON reported on 18 August. Public opinion, however, is less sanguine and an appreciable segment of the population believes the US treats Taiwan as a ‘cash cow’ for weapons systems sales, with little concern for the political ramifications.
The US has approved seven separate arms deal with Taiwan since 2017, totalling $13.2 billion (€11.2 billion) for missiles, fighters, torpedoes and other systems. Subsequent to approval of the PATRIOT sale in July, Beijing imposed sanctions on prime contractor Lockheed Martin, but the US continues to plan further sales, despite these and other warning signs.
It is conventional wisdom in Taiwan – certainly among the pro-Chinese media – to accuse the US of nefarious intent in their arms sales to the island nation, seeking to use it as a buffer zone or early warning mechanism to shield US forces and interests. They point to changes in policy as proof: the US used to offer Taiwan purely defensive systems but now, sources say, they Americans seek to stir troubled waters by selling systems such as the 300km-range High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HiMARS) which, they argue, is an offensive system. While it is doubtful whether this is a deliberate policy of the US government, it is readily apparent that Washington sees arms sales to Taiwan as a useful bargaining chip with Beijing on other issues.
In a rather paradoxical attempt to have one’s fortune cookie and to eat it too, these same sources also suggest that the US sells Taiwan what America wants to sell, rather than what Taiwan wants to buy, and will prevent the Republic of China obtaining systems that Washington considers ‘too sophisticated.’ There may be a measure of truth in these assertions, since the US State Department, at least, is very aware of the risks involved in any dramatic shift in the balance of power or in any dynamic that affects the gap in military capabilities between island and mainland.
Controlling and maintaining delicate power balances is the role of diplomats. While Beijing is scarcely the most liberal or democratic regime on Planet Earth, Washington continues to forge ahead regardless of any nuance and with a forward impetus only, caring nothing for possible consequences. Seeking to influence through bullying, overtly racist behaviour, using Twitter rather than diplomacy and – sadly but increasingly obviously – using ‘hot button’ foreign policy issues to influence domestic politics smacks of rank amateurism. Surely, are right to expect that experienced, competent professionals conduct the foreign and security policies that affect everybody on the planet?