"Modifying US Arms Sales to Taiwan"

Aryel Cianflone

SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer 2010)





Note: This article has in-text citations, for which full references are provided at the end of the article.

The United States’ decision to sell arms to Taiwan is rooted in the American desire to deter invasion of the island (Kan 2009, 3). Based on this goal, the U.S. policy has been very effective; however, it has led to increased Sino-American tension. Therefore, the following paper will outline why and how U.S. arms sales to Taiwan should be adjusted to improve U.S.-China relations, while allowing Taiwan to maintain its defensive capabilities.

This paper will begin by outlining the historical context of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, followed by a discussion of modern U.S.-China relations, the current U.S. policy on arms sales to Taiwan, and specifically the strengths and weaknesses of this policy. In conclusion, there will be a recommendation on U.S. arms sales to China and an overall summary.


On October 1, 1949, with the end of the Chinese civil war, Mao Zedong announced the creation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Nationalists, who opposed Mao’s Communist party, retreated to the island of Taiwan. Here with an army of 600,000 men the leader of the Nationalists, Chiang Kai-Shek, declared emergency rule (Infoplease.com 2009, 1). To the western world, China was the communist enemy that had to be stopped, while Taiwan was a beacon of democratic hope placed directly in the eye of the storm.

Despite the Communist party’s victory, the Nationalist government continued to be recognized by the international community until 1971. At this point, despite the U.S.’s best efforts, the United Nations officially recognized the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan was forced to abdicate its seat, which was then filled by the PRC.

In 1978, the United States followed suit signing the Joint Communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic relations, which stated that beginning January 1, 1979 the U.S. would officially recognize the PRC as the governing body of China (Taiwan Documents Project 1979, 1). However, during 1979 the U.S. also signed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which states that U.S. treatment of Taiwan will not be altered following recognition of the PRC and that the U.S. would “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” (96th Congress 1979, 1). In 1980 the U.S. began arms sales to Taiwan (Arms Control Association, 2003, 1)

In 1982, the U.S. signed the Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué. In this document the U.S. explicitly stated that it did not seek long-term arms sales to Taiwan and that those arms sales that did take place in future years would not exceed “either in qualitative or quantitative terms” the levels sold between 1980-1982 (Nuclear Threat Initiative 1982, 1). Over the next twenty-eight years U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have increased in both quality and quantity reaching sales of up to 6.5 billion dollars in 2008 (Richardson 2010, 1). Approximately one month before signing the Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué, the U.S., under the Reagan administration, provided Taipei with the “Six Assurances.” Within these assurances, the U.S. promised that it would neither set a date to end arms sales to Taiwan or discuss U.S. arms sales to Taiwan with the PRC before making a decision (Huang 2010, 1).

To further complicate the situation, in 1996 China began doing missile tests disconcertingly close to Taiwan, some coming within 30 miles of the capital city of Taipei (Globalsecurity.org 1996, 1). This further intensified U.S. and Taiwanese concern that the PRC may seek reunification through military means. Following this crisis within the Taiwan Strait, the Clinton Administration began quietly expanding the U.S. military relationship with Taiwan (Kan 2009, 2). In October 2008, the U.S. again saw a step up in U.S.-Taiwan relations when the Bush Administration agreed to sell Taiwan 6.5 billion dollars worth of arms. China responded by severing military ties with the U.S. (Minnick 2009, 1). Sino-American tension combined with the lack of dialogue resulted in three maritime incidents. The first two occurred in China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) early in 2009. During these incidents, Chinese maritime patrol and fishing vessels harassed two U.S. Navy survey ships. The third incident took place in June when a Chinese submarine collided with the towed sonar array of the USS John McCain (Minnick 2009, 1). While these incidents led to strategic talks resuming between China and the U.S., they provide some insight into the necessity of communication between China and the U.S. and the ramifications of past arms sales.


Despite such incidents, the economic relationship between the U.S. and China has never been stronger. China currently holds approximately 790 billion dollars, which accounts for over 23 percent of U.S. treasury securities sold to foreign countries, in U.S. debt (Minnick 2009, 1); meanwhile, the U.S. is China’s top exports destination, importing more than a quarter of a trillion dollars worth of Chinese goods in 2008 alone (The US-China Business Council 2010, 1). The highly prosperous relationship between China and the U.S., as well as China and the rest of the world, has allowed China to increase its military capabilities. This development has led to rising suspicions on both sides (Minnick 2009, 1). U.S. policy on arms sales to Taiwan contributes greatly to the suspicions of the Chinese.


In January, President Obama announced that his administration would engage in arms sales to Taiwan valued at 6.4 billion dollars. The arms in question include 60 Black Hawk helicopters, 114 advanced Patriot air defense missiles, a pair of Osprey mine-hunting ships, and dozens of advanced communications systems (Keyes 2010, 1). China responded with diplomatic rebuffs and a temporary suspension of U.S.-China military exchanges, as well as unofficial repercussions against Boeing, one of the companies selling arms to Taiwan (Keyes 2010, 1). The severity of the suspension is still in question as the U.S. carrier, Nimitz, was given clearance to visit Hong Kong “sometime in the near future” (Bradsher 2010, 1).


The strengths of the Obama administration’s policy include the leverage it provides Washington in negotiations with Beijing, the confidence it provides Taiwan, the increase in self-sufficiency that the technology given to Taiwan creates, the message sent to China regarding democracy and human rights, and the message sent regarding U.S. resolve to protect Taiwan.

The U.S. decision to sell arms to Taiwan is a critical policy issue for the U.S., China, and Taiwan because it involves the fundamental security interests of all three. Each country has a unique desired outcome: China wants all U.S. arms sales to Taiwan to cease, Taiwan wants unlimited access to U.S. weapons, and the U.S. wants to prevent China from forcing reunification upon Taiwan, while still maintaining its trade relationship with the PRC. U.S. policy has consistently shown that the U.S. believes the best way to stop conflict between Taiwan and China is through deterrence. By selling arms to Taiwan, the U.S. believes that China will be less inclined to invade because of the potential costs, which include both a better armed enemy and a U.S. sympathetic to that enemy. While serving the primary U.S. interest, this policy also empowers the U.S. in any type of negotiation with China. China sees Taiwan as “their nation’s topmost issue,” which makes it very valuable during negotiations (Blanchard 2010, 1). For example, during the June 1998 summit in Beijing, an authoritative weekly magazine reported that the PRC offered a pledge not to provide Iran missiles in exchange for a U.S. promise to deny Taiwan theater missile defense (Kan 2001, 3). Although no agreement was reached, this demonstrates the power U.S. arms sales to Taiwan provides the U.S. in bilateral relations with China.

Another strength of the current U.S. policy is the stability that it creates in Taiwan. If the Taiwanese people feel completely isolated from the rest of the world it will lead to national instability due to a lack of public confidence in the government’s ability to protect the economic and physical interests of the Taiwanese people. Taiwanese instability would lead to instability in the Taiwanese strait. In a situation that is already tense, such instability could lead to disaster. The Obama Administration’s decision to sell arms to Taiwan provides a counterweight to Chinese dominance in the minds of the Taiwanese people, which allows them to interact with China more confidently, reducing the likelihood of an unintended incident (Bush III 2010, 1).

In addition to confidence, the U.S. provides Taiwan with modern military technology, which allows the Taiwanese to become more militarily self-sufficient. Due to its economic might, the U.S. leads the world in military technology. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have allowed the U.S. to pass on more than simply military might. Due to the understanding of advanced weaponry that the Taiwanese people have, they are able to utilize the technology in the U.S. arms sold to them, in some cases, even replicating it. One example of this is the military and commercial development of Taiwan’s nascent aircraft industry (Federation of American Scientists 2001, 1). Taiwan was able to use the technology provided by the U.S. to improve its nascent aircraft industry, making it more self-sufficient, but also creating direct competition for similar U.S. companies. As Taiwan’s capacity to produce its own weapons increases, the U.S. will be able to smoothly transition away from selling arms to Taiwan; however, the U.S. should be cautious of creating future economic competition for U.S. companies engaged in this field.  

Aside from military implications, the current U.S. policy conveys a political message to China and the rest of the world regarding human rights and democracy. Since the Second World War Taiwan has “enabled a more complete network of military alliances between the U.S. and Asian-Pacific democracies” (Huang 2010, 1). The U.S.-Taiwan relationship continues to act as a gauge for U.S. commitment to democracy in the region. The United States is built on the principle that each human life is valuable. China is a nation built on the principle that the good of the nation is superior to the good of the individual. The U.S. employs a system of broad economic ties with China in hopes that a more open economy will contribute to a more open political system. However, stories of Chinese human rights abuses continue to appear in the news. One particularly disturbing instance of such abuses surfaced on February 2 in The New York Times. This story outlines what appears to be the government kidnapping of a high-profile human rights lawyer. After the man in question disappeared, a spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying he “is where he should be” (Jacobs 2010, 1). This type of behavior only strengthens the U.S. resolve to arm Taiwan, since China cannot yet be trusted to treat its citizens with basic human rights.

Beyond reaffirming the United States’ commitment to freedom and democracy, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan reaffirms the U.S. commitment to protecting Taiwan. This show of support is the most significant deterrence of Chinese aggression against Taiwan.


While the strengths of the current policy are undeniable, the weaknesses are also significant. Such weaknesses include undermining China-Taiwan relations, the growing asymmetry between China and Taiwan, a lack of software exchanges, which can include military contacts, training, advice, and joint military operations, and the impact on U.S.-China relations, specifically the impact on Chinese commitment to the non-proliferation regime (Kan 2009, 2).

Since 2008, when Ma Ying-jeou was elected President of Taiwan, relations between China and Taiwan have improved dramatically. Ma’s approach is based on the “1992 consensus.” In this document both Taipei and Beijing accepted the concept of “one China,” while agreeing to disagree about the interpretation of that phrase (Federation of American Scientists 2001, 1). With this attitude guiding Taiwan-China relations, four rounds of bilateral negotiations have been held leading to twelve agreements and one joint statement. However, American and European arms sales to Taiwan are seen as “a hostile and destabilizing act” by the Chinese (Federation of American Scientists 2001, 1). The relationship between Taiwan and China is of major economic concern to the U.S., Taiwan is China’s largest investor and China is the U.S.’s largest investor. The U.S. must therefore consider the economic ramifications that may trickle down to the U.S. should China-Taiwan relations deteriorate.

It is also important for the U.S. to maintain a realistic idea of Taiwan’s capacity to defend itself should China invade, as well as the non-military factors that deter a Chinese invasion. Despite the billions of dollars in arms that the U.S. has sold to Taiwan over the years, the fact remains that China is a nation of over 1.3 billion people and an annual GDP of 8.767 trillion dollars, while Taiwan has a population of about 23 million people and an annual GDP of 693.3 billion dollars (CIA-China 2010, 1; CIA-Taiwan 2010, 1). With this in mind, it becomes clear that when discussing arms sales to Taiwan, the issue is quickly becoming less about defense and more about the show of support that such sales represent. When the U.S. defies China and sells Taiwan Black Hawk helicopters or Patriot missiles, the U.S. is sending the message that the security of Taiwan is a significant priority that the U.S. is willing to make sacrifices for. The international attention and political jargon surrounding these sales clearly demonstrate that they are more than just a business deal for the U.S. However, in the coming years this “hardware” support should be more heavily substituted with “software” support. Such a transfer would serve the dual purpose of satisfying Chinese demands to reduce arms sales and U.S. promises made in the Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué to reduce American arms sales to Taiwan, as well as increasing the military-to-military communication between the U.S. and Taiwan. In previous years, such a transfer was almost unthinkable. China’s continuous deployment of short-range ballistic missiles, enhanced amphibious warfare capabilities, and long-range anti-air systems opposite Taiwan made it nearly impossible for the U.S. to relax its highly “hardware” focused policy (Office of the Secretary of Defense 2007, 31). However, according to Timothy J. Keating, the former head of United States Pacific Command, since late 2009 the Chinese missile buildup opposite Taiwan had slowed (Rogin 2009, 1). If the Chinese are willing to reduce the threat directed at Taiwan, the Obama administration’s annual decision to sell arms to Taiwan should reflect this.

Over the last thirty years, the U.S. policy on arms sales to Taiwan has had an unquestionably detrimental effect on U.S.-China relations. U.S. arms sale to Taiwan have annually undermined Sino-American relations, repeatedly resulting in negative reactions from China, such as suspensions of military exchanges. When the two could be engaging in mutually beneficial military exchanges, they have instead been engaging in political posturing due to the constant disruptions in bilateral relations.

The impact that U.S.-Taiwan arms sales policy has on the U.S. and China’s ability to work together is particularly poignant in relation to nuclear proliferation. Global proliferation is an ever-increasing security issue for the U.S. that demands cooperation with China. Since 1994 the Chinese have said that their adherence to the Missile Technology Control Regime is conditional based on the U.S. policy regarding arms sales to Taiwan (Federation of American Scientists 2001, 1). While China did not supply the nuclear materials, it is interesting to note that after continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, North Korea was able to conduct its first successful nuclear weapons test underground on October 16, 2006 without Chinese intervention (Aftergood 2006, 1). Would this have happened had the U.S. policy on arms sales to Taiwan been different? Though there is no way to definitively answer that question, an even more significant consideration for the current administration is the priority it places on preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, as well as determining the best way to safeguard against North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The U.S. relationship with China will largely affect whether a situation like the one discussed above is repeated, as the U.S. undoubtedly needs the support of China in both endeavors. While cooperation could be a central part of a positive U.S.-China agenda, Beijing has been consistently reluctant to strengthen its stance against proliferation in Iran and North Korea (Bush III 2010, 1). If the U.S. expects China to be more amendable on its key national security issues, such as proliferation, the U.S. must be willing to make compromises on vital Chinese security issues. 


Despite thirty years of consistent policy, the changing distribution of global power and key U.S. interests require the U.S. to reconsider its policy of selling increasingly large quantities of arms to Taiwan. While it was politically necessary for President Obama to sell such amounts of arms to Taiwan during the first year of his presidency, during his second year in office he should carefully reevaluate the situation between China and Taiwan. Specifically, the President should consider the following modifications to the U.S.-Taiwan arms sales policy.

The President should start by making a formal statement that both the TRA and Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué hold equal weight in the United States’ decision to sell arms to Taiwan. In the past, the U.S. has repeatedly insulted China by favoring the TRA, while ignoring or circumventing the Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué. Paired with the following measures this diplomatic gesture would demonstrate the willingness of the U.S. to consider both sides’ positions, creating a more neutral political environment to begin serious discussions.

Next, with the current trend in China-Taiwan relations it seems foolish for the U.S. to continue to sell Taiwan increasingly large amounts of arms. Not only does it violate the Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué, it undermines China-Taiwan relations by increasing China’s security concerns regarding Taiwan. While relations between China and Taiwan benefit from a more confident Taiwan, this confidence can be achieved with a policy that is less offensive to China. Based on the slowing of the Chinese missile buildup opposite Taiwan, the U.S. should quietly commit to cap arms sales where they are and to reducing the quantity of arms sold to Taiwan year-by-year based on the Chinese posture towards Taiwan and Chinese human rights behavior, as both of these demonstrate the necessity of U.S. intervention on behalf of Taiwan. The arms that Taiwan has should be maintained, arms necessary for dealing with natural disasters, such as the UH-60 Helicopters should continue to be sold to Taiwan on an as-needed basis.

To neutralize the decrease of confidence that will arise, the U.S. should increase the “software” that it supplies to Taiwan. Since American recognition of the PRC in 1979, Taiwan has dealt with significant isolation. Taiwan’s once robust relationship with the U.S. was largely reduced to defense procurements. Until the mid 1990’s the annual arms sales talks became the only, and therefore most important, opportunity for senior military dialogue (Huang 2010, 1). The U.S. has seen success with “software” since active duty officers began being sent to the American Institute in Taiwan in 2005 (Huang 2010, 1). The U.S. should continue increasing military contact, training, advice, and joint military operations, which sends a similar message to Beijing regarding U.S. commitment to Taiwan as directly as weapons sales.


China is most strongly deterred from invading Taiwan by political and economic considerations and American support of Taiwan rather than the actual military hardware Taiwan possesses. The power of Taiwan to defend against a Chinese invasion will continue to decrease as Chinese power gains increase relative to Taiwanese power gains. Recognizing this trend, the U.S. needs to focus on creating an environment in which China feels that it can stop pointing missiles at Taiwan without incurring a serious national security threat. Both the American goal to prevent an invasion of Taiwan and the Chinese goal to reduce American incursions into what it deems “internal issues” can be achieved if the U.S. is willing to rethink the current distribution between “hardware” and “software.” As Susan Shirk, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said in a speech made on April 14, 1999, “neither the PRC or Taiwan would be served by overemphasis on military hardware, while neglecting the art of statesmanship” (Kan 2009, 3). As the threat China perceives from Taiwan decreases, the threat of violent reunification will also decrease.

As the only remnant of democracy in the third largest economy is the world, the fate of Taiwan is of concern to the U.S. (CIA-China 2010, 1). While this democracy to some may be merely symbolic, to those living in Taiwan there are real differences ranging from procreation free of government involvement to the presence of missionaries in country. When determining whether or not to sell arms to Taiwan, the U.S. must be mindful of the day-to-day differences that democracy means for the Taiwanese people.


96th Congress. 1979. Taiwan Relations Act. American Institute in Taiwan, 1 January, http://www.ait.org.tw/en/about_Ait/tra/

Aftergood, Steven. 2006. Nuclear Weapons Program – North Korea. Federation of American Scientists, 16 November, http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/dprk/nuke/index.html

Arms Control Association. 2003. U.S. Conventional Arms Sales to Taiwan. http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/taiwanarms

Blanchard, Ben and Paul Eckert. 2010. U.S. Seeks Calm as China Fumes Over Taiwan Arms. Reuters, 1 February, http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6100C720100201

Bradsher, Keith. 2010. On Arms Sales to Taiwan, China Sends Mixed Signals. New York Times, 11 February, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/12/world/asia/12taiwan.html?ref=world

Bush III, Richard C. 2010. Taiwan Comes Between the U.S. and China Again. Brookings Institution, February 11, http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2010/0211_taiwan_security_bush.aspx

CIA. 2010. The World Factbook: China. 4 February, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ch.html

CIA. 2010. The World Factbook: Taiwan. 4 February, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tw.html

Federation of American Scientists. 2001. Taiwan. December, http://www.fas.org/asmp/profiles/taiwan.htm

Globalsecurity.org. 1996. Taiwan Strait:21 July 1995 to 23 March 1996. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/taiwan_strait.htm

Huang, Alexander Chieh-cheng. 2010. The United States and Taiwan’s Defense Transformation. Brookings Institution, February, http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2010/02_taiwan_defense_huang.aspx

Infoplease.com. 2009. Taiwan. http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0108020.html?pageno=1

Jacobs, Andrew. 2010. China’s Defiance Stirs Fears for Missing Dissident. New York Times, 2 February, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/03/world/asia/03dissident.html?ref=world

Kan, Shirley A. 2001. Taiwan: Annual Arms Sales Process. Congressional Research Service, 5 June, http://www.fas.org/asmp/resources/govern/crs-RS20365.pdf

Kan, Shirley A. 2009. Taiwan: U.S. Arms Sales Since 1990. Congressional Research Service, 2 December, http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/RL30957.pdf

Keyes, Charley. 2010. China Suspends U.S. Military Visits After Taiwan Arms Deal. CNN, 30 January, http://edition.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/01/30/taiwan.arms/index.html

Minnick, Wendell. 2009. Despite Tensions, Experts Anticipate Improvement in Chinese-U.S. Relations. DefenseNews, 14 December, http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=4417464

Nuclear Threat Initiative. 1982. Sino-US Joint Communique. 17 August, http://www.nti.org/db/China/engdocs/commk82.htm

Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2007. Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China. http://www.defense.gov/pubs/pdfs/070523-China-Military-Power-final.pdf

Richardson, Alex. 2010. FACTBOX: China’s Reactions to Past U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan. Reuters, 2 February, http://in.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idINIndia-45846620100202?pageNumber=1&virtualBrandChannel=0

Rogin, Josh. 2009. Obama in No-Win Situation Over Taiwan Arms Sales. Foreign Policy, 15 September, http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/09/15/obama_in_no_win_situation_over_taiwan_arms_sale

Taiwan Documents Project. 1979. Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, 1 January, http://www.taiwandocuments.org/communique02.htm

The US-China Business Council. 2010. US-China Trade Statistics and China’s World Trade Statistics.http://www.uschina.org/statistics/tradetable.html

Full Citation for This Article: Cianflone, Aryel (2010) "Modifying US Arms Sales to Taiwan," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCianfloneTaiwan.html, accessed [give access date].

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 300 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 0 Comments