America must arm Taiwan — before it's too late

The problem with Obama's proposed arms sale to Taiwan isn't that it's happening. It's that it's not big enough.

Taiwan's military rest during a drill.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Wally Santana)

The Obama administration on Wednesday announced a sale of arms to Taiwan, the first since 2010. While it will once again anger the People's Republic of China, it's an important step in giving the island democracy the tools it needs to preserve independence, at least until a political solution acceptable to both sides is realized.

In the wake of the Chinese Civil War, two countries competed for the right to call themselves China: the victorious communist People's Republic of China on the mainland and the losing Republic of China, which retreated to the island of Taiwan.

The United States formally recognized the People's Republic in 1979, but at the same time acknowledged a responsibility to help democratic Taiwan defend itself.

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Only a strait of 110 miles separates Taiwan from the mainland, less than the distance from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia. Known to mariners as “The Black Ditch,” for decades the strait has kept Taiwan safe. In the past Taiwan might as well have been on the far side of the moon, as China did not have the air and naval forces necessary to invade the island.

That is changing, and lately the island nation's ability to defend itself is increasingly in doubt. Double digit increases in the mainland's defense budget have funded a broad modernization of China's air, land, and sea forces. This has eroded Taiwan's military edge — particularly around the island itself. Beijing's recent purchase of S-400 long-range air defense missiles from Russia means even aircraft flying over Taiwan could be shot down from the mainland.

The military analysis of the Taiwan standoff is roughly this: While China could not conduct a successful invasion now, in 10 years, an air and sea blockade would be successful. In 20 years, invasion will be possible.

The arms sale to Taiwan is modest, worth about $1.83 billion compared to a $5.8 billion sale in 2010. It will include two anti-submarine frigates, Stinger surface to air missiles, and Javelin and TOW anti-tank missiles. These are completely defensive weapons that could not threaten China and Chinese military forces — unless those forces crossed the strait and landed on the island.

While those weapons will no doubt be useful, the actual need is considerably greater. Taiwan needs submarines capable of threatening an invasion fleet and fighters to stand up to Beijing's newest fifth generation designs. Taiwan doesn't need to match China's military ship for ship and plane for plane, it just needs something large enough to install sufficient doubt in the mind of Chinese policymakers.

The stronger Beijing has grown politically and economically, the more reluctant the United States has been in selling arms to Taiwan. Beijing regards Washington's support for Taiwan as meddling in an internal matter, as though China sold arms to a Hawaii that had broken away from the rest of the United States.

To an extent, China is right. From a broad perspective, it is a Chinese matter. But it's also a matter where freedom, democracy, and human rights are at stake, all of which are enjoyed in Taiwan, but not the People's Republic. The United States has a moral obligation to assist any nation guaranteeing those principles to its people.

Each time we sell arms to Taiwan, Beijing retaliates — in 2010, it cut off military-to-military exchanges between China and the U.S. for months. It's a Catch-22 — on one hand, the United States can't abandon Taiwan, but on the other hand, our relationship with China has to be carefully maintained. Still, if Washington has to err on one particular side, better to err on the side consistent with our principles.

China and Taiwan may very well some day peacefully work out their differences and merge into a single state. But until then, the United States needs to resist political pressure from China and give the island country the means to negotiate not from a position of insecurity, but from a position of strength.

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