A Good Time for an Arms Sale

Before the U.S. government announcement last month that it would sell 66 F-16 Viper jet fighters to Taiwan in a deal valued at US$8 billion, there hadn’t been an American sale of advanced military aircraft to the island since the George H.W. Bush administration agreed to supply an earlier version of the F-16 in 1992.

Over the more than a quarter century since then, China has poured billions of dollars into ramping up its military capability – and in recent years has adopted an increasingly threatening posture toward Taiwan. It has sent airplanes and naval vessels to circumnavigate the island, pressured multinational companies to refer to Taiwan on their websites as a province of China, struck at Taiwan’s tourism industry by cutting back the number of mainland visitors, wooed away several of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, and used traditional and social media to try to influence Taiwan’s elections.

Beijing’s intent has been to intimidate Taiwan into accepting a “One China” formulation that could put the island’s sovereignty and hard-won democratic system at risk.

Those concerned about Taiwan’s security have long stressed the need for new aircraft in the face of the steadily aging Taiwan Air Force fleet. Most experts therefore heartily welcomed the F-16 Viper deal.

But there was a singularly discordant note – a comment to the New York Times by onetime Obama administration official Evan Medeiros.

“There is never a good time to sell arms to Taiwan, but this timing is probably the worst possible,” said the former senior director for Asia in the National Security Council. “Trade talks will stall, China will try to hit American companies hard and Chinese will see a conspiratorial link between U.S. support for Taiwan and Hong Kong.”

Medeiros might better have said that there is never a perfect time for arms sales to Taiwan, as Beijing is always certain to complain. But the U.S. has to be willing to take those objections in stride, or else it is effectively handing China veto power over any American efforts to bolster Taiwan’s defenses.

In this 40th anniversary year of passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, the American obligation to supply defensive weapons to Taiwan should be especially noteworthy. As the TRA wrote into U.S. law, “the United States will 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.” 

Those decisions should be based solely on Taiwan’s defense needs – including an assessment of the severity of the threat to its security. They should not be influenced by speculation about the impact on third parties, and certainly not third parties who are themselves the main source of the threat.

Along with the jets, the U.S. has also recently approved the sale of Abrams tanks and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. It’s important to note that these are state-of-the-art weapons systems – not outdated or hand-me-down arms that critics of the U.S. often allege are sold, but rather equipment currently in service in the U.S. military.

The vigorous protest demonstrations in Hong Kong in recent weeks should be a compelling reminder to Taiwan – and the world – of the preciousness of this country’s democratic system and the importance of being able to defend it.