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Making Sense of US Arms Sales to Taiwan

BLOG - 23 July 2019

On July 8, the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the U.S. was prepared to proceed with a Foreign Military Sale to Taiwan of 108 M1A2T Abrams tanks, 250 Stinger man-portable air defense systems, and related equipment and support. Valued at approximately US$2.2B, these capabilities improve Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against an invasion by China, and are consistent with the U.S. history of strong bipartisan support for Taiwan’s defense through arms sales. Yet heavy legacy systems such as the M1A2T Abrams tank, fixed-wing aircraft, and capital ships are likely to be vulnerable to China’s portfolio of precision-guided munitions. Given this, why does Taipei continue to invest in relatively expensive, vulnerable weapons systems? Why does the U.S. sell what it does to Taiwan? And what is the impact on the cross-Strait military balance?

Taipei’s arms purchases simultaneously take low-grade coercion off the table and signal determination to defend itself, in essence forcing China to escalate to riskier high-end military options if it wishes to conquer Taiwan. While systems such as the M1A2T may be vulnerable to Chinese air strikes in all-out invasion scenarios, Chinese fighter/bombers would need to approach the island in order to target such mobile systems, at which point they would become vulnerable to Taiwan’s integrated air defense systems. The sale of Stinger Block I-92F is significant in this regard, since it can be useful against the PLA’s fixed-wing ground attack airframes, rotary-wing transport or attack helicopters, UAVs and cruise missiles. China has little experience in combat search-and-rescue for downed pilots and the PLA knows any all-out invasion could well fail if the air or maritime domain are contested, and as some recent surveys have shown, Taiwan is likely to resist vigorously.

Western defense analysts have long pointed out the desirability of shifting towards a more asymmetric approach, advising a "porcupine strategy" that would turn Taiwan (formally the Republic of China, or ROC) into a ‘hard ROC’, that is to say, make it difficult to conquer and in so doing improve its ability to protract any conflict. Taiwan’s defense strategy has evolved over the years as Taipei seeks to respond to growing PLA military capabilities. Recently, some observers have seen hope in the Tsai administration’s adoption of an Overall Defense Concept that shifts Taiwan’s defense strategy in the direction of force preservation, making the island’s defenders more agile, concealable, survivable, and lethal.

How best to blend newer, less expensive, and more asymmetric forces with a more expensive and vulnerable legacy approach to defense doctrine, strategy and organization remains a serious challenge. Realistically, both politics and organizational cultural considerations factor in explaining the investment choices Taiwan makes in defense procurement.

How best to blend newer, less expensive, and more asymmetric forces with a more expensive and vulnerable legacy approach to defense doctrine, strategy and organization remains a serious challenge.

Not unreasonably, Taiwan regards the continued willingness of the United States to sell arms in the face of certain Chinese complaining about interference in its domestic affairs as a costly signal of Washington’s continued commitment to Taipei’s security, and one that is worth continuing to elicit. At the same time, Taiwan is in election season, with President Tsai Ing-wen facing off against Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang; Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je and Foxconn founder Terry Gou are also believed to be considering launching third party candidacies. While it would be incorrect to say that its latest arms purchase was announced for political reasons, it would also be naïve to ignore the fact that such sales always carry both operational and political impacts.

The sale came while Tsai, who has focused on defense affairs throughout her tenure, was preparing to depart for a lengthy overseas trip to meet with Taiwan’s diplomatic partners in the Caribbean, stopping for four days in the U.S. while en route and on her way back.

The politics of defense likely also explain why it is hard for Taiwan to adopt the asymmetric strategies that some experts advise, including with respect to air defense or enhancing the role of the reserve forces. Eliminating a conventional fighter-based air force or dramatically enhancing the role of the reserves might be operationally sound, yet would require expending political capital to explain to the population as representing an improvement in Taiwan’s security. Paradoxically, because Taiwan society has lived for decades with threats from China, it has been somewhat inured to the risks, with some mistakenly believing that the only hope is U.S. intervention and that nothing Taiwan can do will make much of a difference. Taiwan’s shift to an all-volunteer force, while intended to enhance readiness, competence, and morale, has run into problems that may further erode the understanding of military affairs in Taiwan society.

On the U.S. side, the arms sale reflects the Trump administration’s growing commitment to the status and security of Taiwan as a "democratic success story, reliable partner, and force for good in the world", as well as a view of China as a great power competitor. The Congress, for its part, shares concerns over China’s growing power, and has sought to reassure Taiwan about U.S. interests and commitment to the Indo-Pacific, while also supporting greater official contact between Washington and Taipei. China’s threat to sanction the main U.S. firms involved in the sales —General Dynamics and Raytheon— and its decision to launch air force exercises across from Taiwan in the wake of the arms sale announcement are likely to further reinforce Washington’s perception of China as a "revisionist power".

Finally, the latest instance of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan accords with the terms of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act. The TRA declared that "the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means" and that the United States would continue to "provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character." As a Public Law (PL 96-8), the TRA trumps any U.S. – China joint statement, such as the 1982 Communiqué, which merely expressed the U.S. intention, if the PRC approached the resolution of its differences with Taiwan peacefully, to reduce arms sales over (an undefined period of) time. The 1982 Communiqué has come under criticism by observers who worry it may give China too much leverage over the U.S. To that end, it will be worth watching whether the Trump administration proceeds with sales of platforms such as the 66 F-16V’s that Taiwan requested earlier this year.

In conclusion, Taiwan’s arms purchase reflects a continuing concern over the PRC’s military intentions; a balancing of operational and political considerations; a commitment by the U.S. to ensure that Taiwan can defend itself; and an American refusal to "stand down" in the face of China’s aggressive behavior and coercion of Indo-Pacific democracies.

 

Copyright : SAM YEH / AFP

 

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