A Taiwan Lesson
Obama sells arms to an ally
Review & Outlook
09 January 2010
President Obama did right by Taiwan this week, allowing the sale—over Beijing's loud protests—of sophisticated antimissile batteries to the island democracy. We'll take that as a sign that there's a limit to how far the Administration is willing to go to improve relations with China at the expense of America's democratic allies.
The Bush Administration originally proposed the sale of an advanced Patriot ballistic missile interceptor system, or PAC-3, in 2001, as part of a package that included helicopters, submarines and technology upgrades. But Taiwan was eventually only offered about half of the deal, thanks to political bickering in Washington and Taipei. The formal request to Congress for the sale was only submitted in October 2008.
Meantime, the People's Liberation Army has more than 1,000 missiles pointed at Taiwan's 23 million people, and the Pentagon says it is adding about 100 missiles every year. Then there are the over 60 submarines China has patrolling the waters, plus its development of cyberwarfare capabilities and other asymmetrical threats. Taiwan itself can't possibly win an all-out war against China, but with U.S. help it can make the costs of a Chinese attack too prohibitive to contemplate seriously.
The argument against U.S. arms sales is that it clouds prospects for better relations between Taiwan and the mainland. But as Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou-- a vocal advocate for a rapprochement with Beijing--has argued, the arms sales help the Taiwan-China dialogue by allowing Taipei to negotiate from a position of strength. Washington's own relationship with Beijing has hardly suffered over the three decades in which the U.S. has been selling arms to Taipei under terms of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
None of this has prevented China from denouncing the deal, as it has previous sales. A Chinese government spokeswoman said Thursday the PAC-3 sale would cause "serious harm." China is also worked up about Taiwan's request to buy 66 F-16s to bolster its aging air force. The latter is still outstanding, as is about $6 billion worth of items that the Bush Administration didn't put forward for sale, such as Black Hawk helicopters, minesweepers and diesel submarines.
President Obama would be wise to approve those sales. As he has learned in recent months, his overtures to China—including his refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama—haven't been reciprocated in better cooperation on North Korea, Iran and other vital U.S. interests. The sooner Beijing learns this Administration will stand up for its friends, the friendlier it will itself become.