By Abraham Denmark and Tiffany Ma, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Abraham M. Denmark is vice president for Political and Security Affairs at The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), and previously served as Country Director for China Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Tiffany Ma is a project manager at NBR. The views expressed are their own.
According to Chinese media, Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan arrived in Washington last month to meet U.S. Defense Secretary Hagel with a grand bargain in mind: that Beijing would adjust its military deployments along the Taiwan Strait if the United States ended arms sales to Taiwan. Although a Chinese official reportedly claimed that Hagel had a positive response to the suggestion of forming a working group to explore this proposal, Washington quickly dismissed concerns that this might represent a change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. Yet even after the media flames are doused, this proposal will likely encourage a small but growing contingent within the U.S. academic community that sees downgrading U.S. obligations to Taiwan as a justifiable trade for improved U.S.-China relations.
To be sure, this was not the first time that China has pushed such a proposal, and it certainly won’t be China’s last word on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Nonetheless, Washington has robust reasons to stand firm on its commitments to Taiwan and to disregard any such proposals that may come from Beijing.
The U.S. position on this issue is founded on a complex mix of diplomatic agreements, laws and policies that all generally point to America's continued support of Taiwan. Between 1972 and 1982, Washington and Beijing signed three joint communiqués that paved the way for the establishment of normalized relations between the United States and China and for the relationship's maturation. The final communiqué, signed by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, included the following passage:
“[T]he United States Government states that it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution.”
But just one month prior to signing this document, President Reagan issued six assurances that, among other things, the United States would not consult with China on potential arms sales to Taiwan. Moreover, and with the force of law, U.S. policy toward Taiwan is informed by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which commits Washington to make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.
Yet beyond simply honoring a legal requirement and a policy legacy, Washington’s ongoing support of Taiwan reflects the island’s continuing importance to a broad set of American interests in Asia. Indeed, Taiwan’s steady track record as a reliable friend to the United States stacks up on the side of Washington’s assets, not liabilities. As a remarkable success story of democratic transition and a vibrant hub in the global economy, Taiwan plays a vital economic and political role in the Asia-Pacific. Further, the island plays an important role in the United States’ regional security architecture, and this has been one of the constant features in Asia’s evolving strategic environment.
Washington’s renewed focus on Asia brings even more compelling reasons not to bargain away assurances to Taiwan. The potential for mainland China to use force in an effort to settle cross-Strait differences remains a potential flashpoint in Asia, despite a profound improvement in relations between Taiwan and the mainland since 2008. Indeed, the cross-Strait détente has not slowed China’s military buildup – the 2013 Pentagon report on Chinese military power noted that China now fields more than 1,100 short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan.
With Taiwan poised to play a role in the United States’ rebalance strategy, enabling Taiwan’s capacity to contribute as an effective partner becomes more critical than ever. Buckling to pressure from Beijing would not only lose Washington a valuable partner in its rebalancing efforts, but also heighten concerns among other U.S. allies and friends of being sidelined for China, and even affirm a perception of U.S. appeasement to Chinese demands.
Militarily, meanwhile, this proposed bargain makes little sense for American interests. If implemented, Taiwan's ability to defend itself would be greatly diminished, while China would be able to quickly re-deploy its military forces across from Taiwan. Indeed, there is a tremendous amount of evidence that U.S. arms sales improve cross-Strait stability by deterring the mainland from using military force while also giving Taipei the much-needed security it requires to engage the mainland with a diminished fear of attack or coercion. The historically unprecedented peace and stability that China and Taiwan have enjoyed since 2008, while certainly the result of policy decisions made in Beijing and Taipei, has also been grounded in U.S. military support for Taiwan.
Despite the potential adverse repercussions, U.S. proponents for abandoning Taiwan may argue that ending the arms sales will engender greater cooperation from Beijing. However, this is far from likely. China’s rising assertiveness in the region, from territorial claims to support for a belligerent North Korea, will remain sticking points in the bilateral relationship. Assumptions of progress on global security issues, from climate change to non-proliferation, often fail to consider fundamental differences in national interests. In short, selling out Taiwan is not the panacea to challenges in the U.S.-China relationship. Indeed, appeasement has a history of simply generating additional demands for greater acquiescence.
Thankfully, people in Taiwan can rest assured that calls to accept such an agreement have gained little to no traction in Washington's halls of power, and this has been true for both Democratic and Republican administrations. Yet is it clear that, as China's importance to the United States grows, so too will calls for the United States to fundamentally reevaluate its relationship with Taiwan.
The answer to the challenge of maintaining a positive relationship with Beijing is not to sacrifice a stalwart, democratic friend. Rather, both Washington and Beijing must find ways to cooperate on issues of mutual interest, and when possible avoid competitive or confrontational issues, within the context of America's ongoing relations with Taiwan. Friends can disagree, but only adversaries allow those disagreements to define a relationship. For U.S.-China relations to truly mature, it must grow beyond issues of Taiwan and address challenges that deserve the focus of two great powers.