US Sells More Arms to Taiwan

On Monday, the Chinese government responded to America’s decision to sell Patriot missile defense batteries to Taiwan by testing a land-based missile defense system of its own, according to Chinese officials.  The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has placed hunderds of missiles within striking distance of Taiwan, which is one reason why the island wants a missile defense system.

Most Chinese consider Taiwan to be a renegade province that should be part of the People’s Republic, whereas the US treats Taiwan like a separate country despite its so-called “One-China” policy, according to which America supports the idea of a peaceful reunification of the two territories at an indeterminate point in the future.  For decades the US has sold weapons to its longtime ally, which infuriates Chinese leaders.  Under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed in 1979 after America recognized the communist regime in Beijing as the legitimate Chinese government and closed its embassy in Taipei, the US is obligated to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive nature and maintain the capability to respond militarily to any use of force or coercion that threatens Taiwan’s security or independence.

Taiwan has no inherent strategic value to the US.  But the American government offers support to the de-facto nation for three main reasons:

1. It wants to deter a Chinese attack that could destablize the East Asia region, where the US has vital economic and security interests.

2. The ability to provide or withhold specific weapons systems to Taiwan is a diplomatic bargaining chip that can be used in negotiations with China.

3. Pro-Taiwanese  and anti-Chinese constituencies in the US encourage American politicians to help Taiwan improve its defensive posture.

It is unclear if the Obama administration or its successors would intervene with force in response to a Chinese attack on Taiwan.  They would not be legally obligated to do so by any treaty, and the American government maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity”  toward this potential conflict to insure political flexibiliy.  

The desire to protect Taiwan’s independence would not justify a war with China, which is one of America’s most important international partners.  A military conflagration with the People’s Republic could prove costly to US forces, especially since the PLA has been procuring area denial weapons like submarines and anti-ship cruise missiles that could target American naval vessels, including aircraft carriers (a few years ago a Chinese diesel submarine surfaced in the middle of a US carrier battle group before it was detected).  Moreover, America’s security commitments to its other allies in the region would still be credible if the US did not join the fight because of the unique nature of Taiwan’s situation; in fact, a battle between China and Taiwan would probably strenghten the US-Japanese alliance, which has been somewhat weakened lately, partly due to a dispute over the location of a Marine air base on Okinawa.

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