Why US ignores China and sells arms to Taiwan

Riling China, the US's newest $6.4 billion sale includes 60 Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles, and sophisticated command-and-control software.

Jonathan Adams
Military personnel display a Taiwan-developed Sky Bow surface-to-air-missile unit at an installation on Taiwan's west coast, facing China.

The latest arms package for Taiwan, cleared for sale by the White House Jan. 29, has more political than military significance, military analysts say.

With Taiwan playing catch-up to a rapidly modernizing People's Liberation Army (PLA), the deal does little to alter a military balance that has tipped in China's favor.

But the arms do send a political message.

Beijing always objects loudly to US arms sales to the self-ruled island it views as its own. But China has reacted more strongly than usual to this $6.4 billion package, which includes 60 Blackhawk helicopters, Patriot missiles, minesweepers, Harpoon antiship missiles, and sophisticated command-and-control software. And for the first time, it has threatened sanctions against firms involved in the deal, which include Boeing and Sikorsky Aircraft.

"It's not purely a military issue, it's a symbol," says Arthur Ding, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies (CCAPS) in Taipei. "It signifies US support for Taiwan's democratic institutions, and for Taiwan this is very important."

Whatever the reason for China's sharper tone, it has little to do with the capabilities of the military gear offered to Taiwan, analysts say. "I don't think they're breakthrough items," says Lin Chong-pin, a professor of strategic studies at Taiwan's Tamkang University. "They're at most maintenance items."

Take the Patriots. China now has some 1,400 short-range ballistic missiles and scores of cruise missiles aimed at Taiwan. Lin said two or three Patriots are needed to knock out every Chinese missile; last week's package included 114 Patriots.

"It's a continuation of what we've been asking for, but not a great stride forward for our capabilities," says Mr. Lin.

The Blackhawks may be more significant for disaster relief on the typhoon- and flood-plagued island than for military use, he says. The command-and-control software has long been requested by Taiwan, and, according to Lin, "it doesn't make a huge difference."

Wendell Minnick, Asia bureau chief for Defense News, noted that the 12 Harpoon missiles were for training only.

He says the latest sale was for "legacy" weapons held over from the Bush admin-istration; many of the others were released in 2007 and 2008. The Obama administration added nothing to the list of systems in the pipeline, he says, and left out Taiwan's more sensitive – and militarily signifi-cant – request for advanced F-16 fighters and submarines.

"There was nothing new in the release," says Mr. Minnick. "So the question is actually, 'Will the US continue to back Taiwan's defense needs?' "

US weighs its response

Beijing has warned Washington not to sell the F-16s that Taiwan wants. And the submarines request has now likely been "killed," says Ding, of the CCAPS. For several decades, Taiwan's vastly outnumbered military has counted on its edge in quality over the PLA. The PLA's modernization has erased that advantage, leaving Taiwan more dependent than ever on its chief deterrent: the US Navy's Seventh Fleet.

Now, China is developing and deploying submarines, destroyers, and missiles to keep the US out of a fight.

Of particular concern to US planners: an aircraft-carrier-busting antiship ballistic missile, now believed to be in development.

Those expanding capabilities have sparked a debate among Taiwan and US security analysts on how best to respond.

Taiwan's government touts a "preventive defensive" posture that it dubs the "Hard ROC" strategy, a play on Taiwan's formal name, the Republic of China.

In a 2008 essay that was widely discussed in Taiwan's security circles, retired US naval officer William Murray argued that the island should go further, adopting a so-called "porcupine strategy" focused strictly on hunkering down and hardening facilities.

Taiwan's own deterrent

But some in Taiwan say the island needs to strengthen its own offensive deterrent.

"If China continues to modernize its military force, they'll reach a level that our defensive-oriented posture could not withstand," says Ding. He argues Taiwan should develop precision-strike cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles as a deterrent, to "make China think twice" about any attack.

Tamkang University's Lin argues that Taiwan needs F-16s and submarines. But as a last resort, it should also develop a lower-tech deterrent to dissuade China from attempting an occupation of the island.

"Taiwan needs to develop its asymmetrical capabilities, because we cannot confront the PLA head-on," he says. He envisions home-grown, perhaps US-trained "cement jungle guerrilla warfare" units, consisting of trained reserves and snipers who can operate independently and harass PLA occupiers.

"When the PLA comes, let them in – don't engage in bloody, Stalingrad-type warfare," he says. "Give them one shot today, two tomorrow, and three afterward, so they cannot conclude a war."

Taiwan has long been a sticking point in US-Chinese relations. Given today's now more powerful and assertive China, Sino-American ties are even more critical now. But a modest shipment of US arms to Taiwan has elicited a strong Chinese response.

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