Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the approval of a major arms sales package for Taiwan. The $6.4 billion deal includes 114 Patriot advanced capability (PAC-3) missiles, 60 Blackhawk helicopters, and two Osprey-class mine-hunting ships, among other items. The Obama administration is still considering Taiwan's request for the F-16 C/Ds that it wants to replace some of its aging fighters.
As it has in the past, Beijing quickly expressed its indignation through multiple channels. Foreign Ministry officials denounced the arms sales as interference in China's internal affairs and China's official media warned that the decision would "inevitably cast a long shadow on Sino-U.S. relations."
Beijing also retaliated by suspending U.S.-China military-to-military relations, a move that was widely expected since military ties were also put on hold for about five months after the last major U.S. sale of weapons to Taiwan in October 2008. This time, however, an increasingly assertive China is warning of broader consequences for bilateral relations, including placing sanctions on U.S. contractors involved in the deal, some of whom have civilian contracts in China. Beijing's response may also include turning a cold shoulder to U.S. requests for cooperation on other international problems.
In anticipation of the arms sales announcement, a number of critics of U.S. policy toward Taiwan have charged that continuing to support the island is not worth the risk of alienating an increasingly powerful and influential China. Some have argued that U.S. arms sales are no longer needed, given the emergence of a more stable and constructive cross-Strait relationship over the past year and a half.
It is undeniably true that China's importance to the United States is growing, and the recent cross-Strait détente is certainly a welcome development. But arguments against continuing to support Taiwan rest on questionable assumptions about cross-Strait relations, and recommendations for an end to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are misguided.
Most problematic of all are assertions that cross-Strait relations would somehow be demilitarized if only the United States would stop selling military equipment to Taiwan. In reality, China would also have to agree to downplay the military component of its own Taiwan strategy to achieve true demilitarization of the cross-Strait relationship.
Unfortunately, there is little likelihood that China would be willing to move in this direction as long as it remains convinced that its political leverage rests at least in part on its growing military capability -- which includes not only the more than 1,000 short-range ballistic missiles it has deployed opposite Taiwan, but also an impressive array of "anti-access" capabilities that could complicate U.S. intervention in a cross-Strait crisis or conflict.
Finally, some critics frame the core challenge for the United States as deciding whether it wants to pursue a policy of containment and confrontation with regard to China, or one of pragmatism and accommodation, but this is a false dichotomy. The real challenge for the United States is crafting a policy that enhances the durability of this new cross-Strait détente and creates 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 U.S. policy. But security assistance 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. U.S. support for Taiwan's security, including arms sales like those announced on Friday, remains vital for three reasons.
First, it provides Taiwan with the confidence it needs to pursue a more pragmatic policy toward China without fear of being bullied into compromising its core interests by an increasingly powerful neighbor. Second, it discourages China from attempting to coerce Taiwan with the threat of force, not only by strengthening Taiwan's defense, but also by underscoring the continued relevance of America's longstanding commitment to Taiwan's security. Third, it strengthens the credibility of Washington's commitments to its other regional friends and allies, especially Japan and South Korea.
Critics of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are correct to highlight the growing importance of a cooperative relationship with China on a broad range of international issues, from Iran and North Korea to the global financial crisis and climate change. But the United States still has a major role to play in helping to promote stability in the Taiwan Strait, in part by ensuring that Taiwan will have the confidence to engage in dialogue with China from a position of strength. This will be especially crucial when cross-Strait détente eventually moves beyond the realm of economic cooperation and the two sides begin to address more controversial issues.
The Obama administration's decision was the right policy choice. Now the challenge is persuading China to continue working with the United States on issues of mutual concern. Between Beijing's anger over last week's arms sales decision and its latest warnings about the potential consequences of an upcoming presidential meeting with the Dalai Lama, this will not be an easy task. But both sides must work together to prevent disagreements in any one area, no matter how important, from derailing cooperation on other key issues. As White House spokesman Robert Gibbs recently observed, with so much at stake in the U.S.-China relationship, neither country "can afford to simply walk away from the other."