“Strong Indignation,” but Limited Retribution: China’s Response to U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 19

A Soon-to-be Upgraded Taiwanese F-16

On September 21, the Obama administration announced a long-awaited decision on arms sales to Taiwan. As was widely expected, Washington agreed to upgrade Taiwan’s existing F-16A/B fighter aircraft rather than provide it with new F-16C/D fighters. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) indicated the retrofitting of the 145 F-16A/B aircraft, including associated equipment such as Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars, electronic warfare systems and communications upgrades as well as training and logistical support, would cost about $5.3 billion (DSCA News Release, Transmittal No. 11-39, September 21). Although Washington did not agree to sell the 66 new F-16C/D fighters Taipei had requested, administration officials seemed to leave open the possibility that they could offer new aircraft to Taiwan at some point in the future (Washington Post, September 16). The decision may have been a reasonable approach under the circumstances, but it drew harsh criticism from some quarters in Washington, disappointed many in Taipei and angered Beijing—though China’s reaction this time was weighted more toward rhetoric than retribution.

Explaining China’s Response

In anticipation of the arms sales decision, Chinese officials reiterated familiar warnings about the consequences for U.S.-China relations. In May, General Chen Bingde, Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), indicated any U.S. arms sales to Taiwan would inevitably damage U.S.-China relations in general and military-to-military relations in particular. At the same time, however, General Chen appeared to suggest the disruption might be limited if the package did not include the items of greatest concern to Beijing—new F-16C/D fighters. "As to how bad the impact will be, it would depend on the nature of the weapons sold to Taiwan," Chen said (BBC, May 18). In mid-September, a week before the U.S. announcement, a pseudonymous opinion piece in the People’s Daily declared the arms sales process "a political farce." Further, the article warned "Any weapons deal with Taiwan will be rude interference in China’s internal affairs and will hurt the feelings of the Chinese nation and cause severe damage to China-U.S. relations" (People’s Daily, September 13).

Predictably, once Washington announced its decision, Beijing voiced its “strong indignation and resolute opposition” to the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan (Xinhua, September 22). China’s official news agency reported Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun summoned U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke, to underscore China’s displeasure. Zhang said "The new round of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, no matter in what excuses and reasons, can not hide the intention of interfering in China’s internal affairs and will send very wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces, and will severely disturb the momentum of peaceful development in cross-Strait relations" (Xinhua, September 22). Chinese media also reported Ambassador Zhang Yesui lodged a “strong protest” in Washington. In addition, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu warned, “The erroneous practice of the U.S. will inevitably cause damage to China-US relations and bilateral exchanges and cooperation in the military, security and other fields, and the responsibility completely rests with the US side” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 21).

Notwithstanding China’s vehement rhetoric, Chinese security specialists predicted the administration’s decision to upgrade Taiwan’s F-16A/Bs would not result in a complete suspension of U.S.-China military exchanges, unlike when Beijing broke off military ties with the United States in January 2010  following the last major arms sales package (New York Times, September 22). “The arms sale will affect the bilateral relationship a little bit because China feels that they are not respected enough by the [United States],” said Chu Shulong, a professor at Tsinghua University’s Institute of International Studies. Chu added that "it will have a minor influence, and won’t have impact on the military ties, like last time. There won’t be any direct effect on the Sino-U.S. relationship because of the arms sale this time”(Washington Post, September 22).

These predictions thus far appear to be accurate. Beijing’s response reportedly has included postponement or cancellation of a few planned exchanges. Media reports indicate these include a U.S.-Chinese anti-piracy naval exercise, a visit to China by Admiral Robert Willard, Commander of US Pacific Command (PACOM) and a China trip by a military band (Christian Science Monitor, September 27). China’s reaction has been relatively restrained, especially compared to the roughly 10-month suspension of U.S.-China military relations following the last major round of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in January 2010—a $6.4 billion package that included Patriot PAC-3 missile interceptors, Osprey-class mine-hunting ships, UH-60 utility helicopters and communications equipment. Moreover, in response to the January 2010 arms sales, Beijing also threatened to impose sanctions against U.S. companies and warned of broader consequences for bilateral relations (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 30, 2010).

China’s reaction this time gives rise to a series of questions. First, why does Beijing react with such rhetorical vehemence to the arms sales?  It seems it is not because of concerns that the arms sales will fundamentally change the military situation. Indeed, Chinese analysts suggest the latest arms sales will do little to alter a cross-Strait military balance that clearly is shifting China’s way. Further, according to Li Xiaoning of Beijing University, the United States and Taiwan both know "it is impossible to rely on a few airplanes to change the balance of military strength across the Strait." Thus, the major concern Chinese scholars have articulated is that the arms sales represent strong U.S. political-military backing for Taiwan. As Li puts it, “the political significance of Taiwan’s military procurement from the United States is much greater than the military significance, it is the hope of gaining U.S. support,” (Liberation Daily, September 23).

Some Chinese scholars also express concern that arms sales to Taiwan are a reflection of U.S. strategic intentions toward China. For example, Sun Zhe of Tsinghua University suggests continued U.S. arms sales are intended at least in part to “play the ‘arms sales card’ to contain China’s rise,” (Liberation Daily, September 23). Similarly, Tao Wenzhao of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) suggests the arms sales reveal the “two-sided nature” of U.S. policy toward China and reflect Washington’s determination to “use Taiwan to check China,” (Guangming Daily,  September 23) Furthermore, according to Tao, the arms sales indicate Washington is uneasy about the possible implications of the rapid development of the cross-Strait relationship. In addition, Chinese leaders feel the need to respond to domestic political pressure and nationalist sentiment. They presumably want to avoid the appearance of weakness on an issue as sensitive as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Given that Chinese objections seem to focus more on the political symbolism of U.S. backing for Taiwan than anything else, what explains China’s apparently moderate substantive response to the latest arms sales? Chinese analysts suggested Beijing’s relatively restrained reaction was a function of several factors. These included the latest arms sales package, Beijing’s concerns about how a stronger reaction might impact domestic politics in Taiwan before its January 2012 presidential and legislative elections and how it might influence U.S.-China relations ahead of the upcoming leadership succession in China. First, that the package did not include the requested new F-16C/Ds probably made it easier for Beijing to take a more restrained tack than if the new fighters had been part of the deal, given the perceived symbolic importance of the potential sale of new fighters. Another motive seems to be minimizing the risk of upsetting cross-Strait relations in ways that could undermine President Ma Ying-jeou’s chances of reelection or bolster the opposition in Taiwan ahead of the island’s elections in January (Liberation Daily, September 23). Domestic politics in China and the need for a stable U.S.-China relationship also seem to have been relevant. Professor Shi Yinhong of Renmin University attributed the muted response to the Chinese leadership’s desire to avoid creating problems ahead of Vice President Xi Jinping’s expected visit to the United States in early 2012, especially with a leadership transition later next year in which Xi is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as China’s leader (Christian Science Monitor, September 27).

Back to the Future?

Notwithstanding China’s relatively restrained response to the latest arms sales decision, Washington must consider several larger questions about the future of arms sales to Taiwan in the context of warming cross-Strait ties and a changing U.S.-China relationship: What weapons does Taiwan really need to deter Chinese coercion, or to defend itself against a Chinese attack if deterrence fails? What is the appropriate U.S. role in helping Taiwan militarily deter China and approach its evolving relationship with China from a position of strength? Finally, how is China likely to respond to future U.S. arms sales to Taiwan?

As for the first question, what type of weapons Taiwan really needs, the latest arms sales decision is unlikely to make much of a difference in terms of a military balance that the U.S. Department of Defense assesses “continues to shift in Beijing’s favor” [1]. According to a recent RAND report, China’s conventional ballistic missiles pose an overwhelming threat to Taiwan’s air bases [2]. To many observers, this suggests upgrading Taiwan’s F-16A/Bs—or even selling it new F-16C/Ds—will not enable Taiwan to regain the position of superiority it once enjoyed in terms of the cross-Strait air balance. Indeed, as Admiral Willard recently said about the cross-Strait balance, “there’s a pretty large delta there that I don’t think these kind of defense articles that are being provided in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act is going to overcome,” (Taipei Times, September 25).

Big-ticket items still dominate some discussions and some analysts continue to offer a variety of reasons for selling new fighter aircraft to Taiwan, including the need for Taiwan to update its aging air force, the political symbolism of major arms sales and the economic benefits of new F-16C/D sales [3]. Given that Chinese missile strikes could seriously damage Taiwan’s airfields early in a cross-Strait conflict, short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft would seem better suited to meeting Taiwan’s defense needs. Indeed, Taiwanese officials have suggested they might soon begin asking for the STOVL version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), but such requests could prove controversial for a number of reasons. Beyond the issue of which aircraft, if any, Taiwan will acquire from the United States, lies the broader question of Taiwan’s overall defense strategy. U.S. officials and defense analysts have suggested Taiwan should focus on developing or acquiring “innovative” and “asymmetric” defense capabilities. Senior defense officials in Taiwan state that such approaches constitute an important part of the island’s “Hard ROC” defense policy [4]. In addition, official documents like Taiwan’s National Defense Report 2011 emphasize the need for “innovative” and “asymmetric” responses to Chinese military threats.

Helping Taiwan make the transition to a defense strategy that focuses more heavily on “innovative” and “asymmetric” capabilities would still involve strong support from the United States, which means arms sales to Taiwan almost certainly will continue to be a major irritant in U.S.-China relations. Indeed, China can be expected not only to continue lobbying against arms sales, but also to keep targeting U.S. political support for Taiwan more generally. Even if further arms sales cannot tip the cross-Strait military balance back in Taiwan’s favor, Beijing can be expected to continue to object vociferously whenever Washington sells weapons to Taiwan. Chinese concerns focus at least as much on the symbolism as they do on the substance of any particular systems. Additionally, China’s relatively restrained reaction to the latest Taiwan arms sales decision may not be indicative of how Beijing would be likely to respond the next time around, especially if future U.S. arms sales involve items that China sees as symbols of U.S. political-military backing or if there are domestic political or atmospheric changes in the U.S.-China-Taiwan strategic triangle.

Some Chinese analysts have suggested arms sales may stop eventually. For example, Tao Wenzhao writes, “along with the development of U.S.-China relations and cross-strait relations, more and more Americans will realize that the strategic losses of arms sales to Taiwan outweigh the gains, and the ‘Taiwan Relations Act’ undoubtedly will die of old age. The United States should stop selling arms to Taiwan immediately,” (Guangming Ribao, September 23). Others appear to recognize this is a very unlikely outcome. Indeed, in addition to using Taiwan as a means of checking China, Chinese observers cite other factors—such as economic interests and U.S. and Taiwanese domestic political considerations—as motives for continued arms sales (Study Times, October 3). Nonetheless, Chinese commentators argue Washington harms its own interests by selling arms to Taiwan, because China sees arms sales as infringing on its core interests and could retaliate by limiting military exchanges and cooperation on security issues. Warning that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are a “wrongful course toward doom” may be more rhetorical flourish than anything else, but, at a more substantive level, such messages also suggest undermining Washington’s willingness to bear the consequences of future arms sales to Taiwan remains an important Chinese objective (Xinhua, September 22).

At a more strategic level, Chinese analysts seemingly calculate that driving a wedge between Washington and Taipei could isolate Taiwan and give China greater bargaining leverage in future cross-Strait political and military negotiations. Indeed, some Chinese analysts have expressed similar, if more strident, views about the U.S. political connection to Taiwan as the vital link that China must sever to promote unification on its terms. For example, following the latest arms sales announcement, one Chinese observer urged a stronger response to U.S. arms sales as a means of pressuring Washington to change its policy, thus depriving Taiwan of U.S. political backing and making people in Taiwan more willing to accept unification with China (Global Times [China], September 29). Beijing, however, could easily overplay its hand—especially if it fails to consider the possible unintended consequences of such an approach. Indeed, trying to isolate Taiwan is probably less likely to increase Taipei’s willingness to negotiate on China’s terms than it is to leave it feeling too insecure to discuss sensitive cross-Strait issues. Beijing may not believe it, but U.S. support for Taiwan is a prerequisite for, not an obstacle to, the further development of a more stable and constructive cross-Strait relationship.

Notes:

  1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2011, Washington, DC, 2011, p. 7.
  2. David A. Shlapak, David T. Orletsky, Toy I. Reid, Murray Scot Tanner, Barry Wilson, A Question of Balance: Political Context and Military Aspects of the China-Taiwan Dispute, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2009.
  3. Another rationale that is sometimes offered for selling F-16C/Ds to Taiwan is the need to replace the ROC Air Force’s obsolete F-5s. Taiwan has lost numerous F-5s in a series of crashes over the years and these accidents have claimed the lives of a number of pilots. Sadly, the week before the administration announced its arms sales decision, two more Taiwan F-5s crashed during a training exercise, killing three Taiwan air force officers (Taipei Times, September 27).
  4. See, for example, Andrew Yang, “U.S.-ROC Cooperation to Secure Peace and Stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Keynote Speech at the 2011 US-Taiwan Defense Industry Conference, Richmond, Virginia, September 19, 2011, http://www.us-taiwan.org/reports/2011_september19_andrew_yang_conference_keynote.pdf.