The Role of U.S. Arms Sales in Taiwan’s Defense Transformation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 5

Patriot Missile

On January 29, 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced the approval of a major, long-awaited arms sales package for Taiwan. The $6.4 billion deal includes Patriot advanced capability (PAC-3) missiles along with radar sets and related equipment, UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters, Osprey class mine hunting ships, Multifunction Information Distribution Systems terminals, and Harpoon telemetry missiles. China quickly expressed its indignation and blasted the decision as interference in its internal affairs. Beijing also retaliated by suspending some U.S.-China military-to-military exchanges, a move that was widely expected. This time, however, China reacted more assertively than it has in the past, including threatening to impose sanctions on the U.S. companies involved in selling weapons to Taiwan. China even warned of broader consequences for bilateral relations, perhaps to include turning a cold shoulder to U.S. requests for cooperation on other international problems such as Iran and North Korea [1].

Assessments of the motives underlying China’s reaction to the arms sales announcement and its potential ramifications for U.S.-China relations have dominated media coverage and online punditry, but an equally important question, and one that has been largely overlooked, is that of Taiwan’s future approach to defense transformation and arms procurements from the United States. The cross-Strait rapprochement that has taken shape since Ma Ying-jeou became President of Taiwan in 2008 has thus far featured four rounds of talks between the two sides respective semi-official negotiating bodies, Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation and China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, resulting in a series of 12 agreements on issues such as the establishment of direct cross-Strait flights, financial cooperation, food safety, mainland tourist visits to Taiwan, and law enforcement cooperation. Taiwan and China are also preparing for a fifth round of talks and continuing to negotiate the details of a proposed cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA).

This cross-Strait detente has sparked some debate in Taiwan about the extent to which the island still needs to spend large sums of money on defense transformation and arms procurement from the United States (Taipei Times, March 20, 2009). Some argue that Taiwan still needs to modernize its military and purchase advanced weapons from the United States because a strengthened defense posture is a crucial to support Taipei’s efforts to develop a more stable and constructive cross-Strait relationship while protecting its interests (Taipei Times, February 1). "The relaxed tensions depend very much on the continued supply of arms from the United States to Taiwan," President Ma said in a December 2009 interview. "Certainly Taiwan will not feel comfortable to go to a negotiating table without sufficient defense buildup in order to protect the safety of the island" (Wall Street Journal, December 15, 2009). Similarly, Taiwan’s MND greeted the recent U.S. announcement with a statement underscoring its position that the arms sales "would enable Taiwan to be more confident in seeking reconciliation with China and help peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait" (Wall Street Journal, January 21).

As for future plans regarding arms sales, senior defense officials in Taiwan continue to argue that procuring weapons from the United States remains vital to achieving defense transformation objectives. According to Defense Minister Kao Hua-chu, “In the future, Taiwan will continue purchasing more weaponry from the U.S …. so as to build a smaller and leaner deterrent force” (China Post [Taiwan], February 8). Several major arms procurement items remain on the table. Indeed, the latest arms sales notifications did not include two of the most expensive and potentially controversial items that were on Taipei’s shopping list—the diesel submarines that President George W. Bush originally approved in 2001 and the F-16 C/Ds Taipei is seeking to replace some of its aging fighters. Some commentators have opined that the exclusion of a submarine feasibility study from the latest batch of Congressional arms sales notifications portends the end Taiwan’s long effort to acquire new diesel submarines. According to media reports in Taiwan, however, the Ministry of National Defense has not abandoned its plans to acquire new diesel submarines (China Post, February 10). In addition, Taipei is still seeking the F-16 C/Ds, a request that remains under consideration in Washington [2].

Others in Taiwan suggest that warming ties with China obviate the need for expensive arms purchases like submarines and F-16 C/Ds by creating an opportunity for Taiwan to enjoy a “peace dividend.” They argue that the more stable relationship with the mainland allows Taiwan to further reduce defense spending without compromising its security. This is an understandable development, but it is also giving rise to concerns about the public’s willingness to back the Ma administration’s defense transformation programs. “Rapprochement has also softened domestic support for defense modernization,” according to Alexander Huang, one of Taiwan’s leading defense policy analysts [3]. In conjunction with Taiwan’s financial difficulties, this has led some in Taiwan to advocate a reduction in defense spending even as China’s military power continues to grow.

Some in Taiwan are extremely skeptical of the possibility of a “peace dividend,” however, favoring a much firmer approach to protecting Taiwan’s interests. According to one recent editorial, for example, “there is no ‘peace’ in the Taiwan Strait that can create a ‘dividend’” (Taiwan News, January 8). Despite progress in cross-Strait economic ties, according to some observers, Taiwan can ill afford to let down its guard because the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to expand its deployment of tactical missiles opposite the island and Beijing remains unwilling to renounce its right to use force against Taiwan.

These discussions about Taiwan’s evolving security environment and the cross-Strait thaw’s implications for defense spending and arms procurement highlight the importance of the future direction of Taiwan’s defense strategy and the core defense challenges facing Taiwan. At the same time, however, the cross-Strait détente poses some challenges in terms of focusing attention on defense issues and winning public support for difficult choices. “The relaxation has in a way mitigated the Taiwan public’s vigilance regarding existing Chinese military threats and the growing imbalance of military capability in Beijing’s favor,” according to Huang. At the same time, however, the warming of cross-Strait relations also creates some opportunities for Taiwan’s defense establishment. Indeed, one important advantage of the relaxation of cross-strait tension is that it “provides the military with a long-awaited window to focus on full-range transformation with much less pressure on military alertness” [4].    

Among Taiwan’s key defense transformation priorities, three stand out as particularly important: rethinking Taiwan’s defense strategy and developing innovative and asymmetric war-fighting capabilities to address the growing cross-Strait military imbalance; enhancing the ability of the armed forces to conduct disaster relief and humanitarian assistance operations; and managing the potentially very expensive transition to an all-volunteer military. Not only must Taiwan address all of these issues simultaneously, but it must do so in a challenging economic environment that continues to impose constraints on the resources available for defense modernization.

Senior officials highlight refining Taiwan’s defense strategy as a critical priority because Taiwan needs a strategic framework that will allow it to address the growing military imbalance across the Taiwan Strait and optimize the allocation of scarce resources. Taiwan appears unlikely to fully adopt the “porcupine” strategy that has been proposed as an option to respond to China’s growing capability to coerce Taiwan militarily [5]. Yet, Taiwan’s “Hard ROC” defense strategy and its concept of “resolute defense, credible deterrence” incorporate some key elements of the “porcupine” approach. Moreover, senior MND officials have repeatedly highlighted the importance of “innovation” and “asymmetry” in the context of Taiwan’s defense transformation. Their comments echo the views expressed by U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Wallace “Chip” Gregson in his speech at the most recent U.S.-Taiwan Business Council Defense Industry Conference in September 2009, during which he highlighted the importance of asymmetric approaches and innovative thinking in tackling Taiwan’s defense challenges [6].
The ROC military must prepare not only for conventional challenges, but also for non-traditional security missions, such as disaster relief and counterterrorism. In particular, the Typhoon Murakot disaster dramatically illustrated the importance of enhancing the military’s preparation for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. The political fallout from the Ma administration’s handling of relief operations underscored the pressure the defense establishment will face to rapidly improve its ability to respond to future natural disasters. Consequently, the military may need to face some trade-offs between improving its ability to conduct combat operations and its readiness for disaster relief operations. Top officials insist that enhancing combat operations and deterrence capability remains the military’s number one priority, but they also recognize the importance of non-traditional security missions. Indeed, preparedness for disaster relief is clearly emerging as a core mission for the ROC military, with some commentators arguing that natural disasters pose a greater security threat than the PLA given the relaxation of tension with the mainland [7].
Even though it has received less attention from many observers than issues such as defense strategy and the Typhoon Murakot relief efforts, the transition to the all-volunteer force is one of the most critical challenges facing Taiwan’s military over the next few years. Given its implications for the future of Taiwan’s armed forces it has been identified as one of the MND’s highest priorities, as reflected by Taiwan’s March 2009 Quadrennial Defense Review and the MND’s 2009 National Defense Report. As part of this transition, the size of the military will decline to about 215,000, and better pay and living standards will be offered to help recruit and retain highly qualified professional military personnel [8].

Importantly, Taiwan requires support from the United States to move forward in all of these areas. Some critics of U.S. policy toward Taiwan, however, contend that continuing to support the island is not worth the risk of alienating an increasingly powerful and influential China. Perhaps most prominently, retired Admiral and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Bill Owens has argued that U.S. arms sales are no longer needed given the emergence of a more stable and constructive cross-Strait relationship (Financial Times, November 17, 2009). Political scientist and former journalist Bruce Gilley has even suggested that “Finlandization” is the appropriate model for Taiwan [9]. Of course, it is true that China’s importance to the United States is growing and the recent cross-Strait détente is certainly a welcome development, but U.S. support for Taiwan’s security—including but not limited to arms sales—remains vital to Taiwan’s defense transformation goals. Indeed, for its part, the United States should regard the recent thaw in cross-Strait ties as an opportunity to help Taiwan strengthen its defense posture.

Perhaps even more importantly, in a larger political sense, U.S. security assistance provides Taiwan with the confidence it needs to pursue a more pragmatic policy toward China without fear of being bullied into a resolution of cross-Strait differences on terms that are unacceptable to the people of Taiwan. U.S. support also discourages China from attempting to coerce Taiwan with the threat of force, not only by strengthening Taiwan’s defensive posture, but also by underscoring the continued relevance of America’s longstanding commitment to the island’s security. These are the main reasons for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, despite Beijing’s unfounded suspicions that such sales are actually intended to undermine cross-Strait reconciliation and contain a rising China [10].

The challenge for the United States and Taiwan is thus crafting policies that enhance the durability of this new cross-Strait détente and create an environment in which Taiwan can work toward the resolution of its differences with China without fear of compromising its core interests. Encouraging further dialogue should be a key element of this approach, but Taiwan’s defense transformation will also remain vital to a stable and constructive cross-Strait environment, even as the China-Taiwan relationship moves in a closer and more constructive direction. Indeed, senior officials in Taiwan have underscored that maintaining a credible defense and deterrence capability is a prerequisite to further reducing tension with the mainland. Looking to the future, U.S. support for Taiwan’s defense transformation may become even more important if cross-Strait détente eventually moves beyond the realm of economic cooperation and the two sides begin to address potentially far more and sensitive controversial political and security issues. Consequently, Taiwan and the United States must continue working together to address the island’s most pressing defense transformation challenges.


1. “Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei Made Stern Representations to the U.S. Ambassador to China on US Arms Sales to Taiwan,”Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, January 30, 2010,
2.  “We’re in the process of assessing Taiwan’s needs and requirements for that capability,” a senior administration said during a late January background briefing. See U.S. Department of State, “Background Briefing on Asian Security,” January 29, 2010,
3. Alexander Chieh-chung Huang, “The United States and Taiwan’s Defense Transformation,” Taiwan-US Quarterly Analysis, Brookings, February 2010,
4. Huang, “The United States and Taiwan’s Defense Transformation.”
5. See William Murray, "Revisiting Taiwan’s Defense Strategy," Naval War College Review , Vol. 61, No. 3 (Summer 2008), pp. 13-38. On Taiwan’s response, see Alexander Huang, “The Road Ahead for the ROC Military,” Taipei Times, March 20, 2009,
6. Wallace C. Gregson, “Remarks to the US-Taiwan Business Council Defense Industry Conference,” September 28, 2009,
7. C.V. Chen, “The Main Missions of the ‘National Army’ Should be Disaster Prevention and Disaster Relief,”  August 10, 2009,
8. Ministry of National Defense, Republic of China, 2009 National Defense Report, Taipei, Taiwan, October 2009.
9. Bruce Gilley, “Not so Dire Strait: How the Finlandization of Taiwan Benefits US Security,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2010,
10. Bonnie S. Glaser, “Debunking Myths About US Arms Sales to Taiwan,” PacNet Number 6, February 17, 2010,