How a few F-16s can buy peace in the Taiwan Strait

Dennis V. Hickey is a professor of political science at Missouri State University.

President Obama will have a lot on his agenda when he visits China this week as part of his four-nation Asia trip. He wants to strengthen ties with Beijing in an effort to resolve the global financial crisis, foster collaboration on climate change and curb nuclear proliferation in North Korea. China’s cooperation is also essential on a wide range of other pressing problems, including terrorism, threats to public health and dwindling energy supplies. Most analysts agree, however, that Beijing’s chief concern is the United States’ continued military support of Taiwan.

American arms sales to Taiwan hold the potential to jeopardize Sino-American relations. But there is a way for Washington to use military arms to turn this situation into a win-win-win scenario for the U.S., China and Taiwan.

Relations between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan have improved enormously in the last year. The two sides have hammered out agreements easing travel and trade restrictions, promoting tourism and providing for improved postal services and food safety. Beijing has agreed to Taipei’s participation as an observer in the World Health Assembly -- the steering body of the World Health Organization -- as “Chinese Taipei,” while Taipei has junked the quixotic campaign to rejoin the United Nations. A free-trade pact is on the horizon, and both sides are talking about a peace agreement.

Despite these positive trends, U.S. military support for Taiwan remains the most sensitive and volatile issue in Sino-American relations. During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, Obama endorsed the Bush administration’s decision to sell $6.5 billion in arms to Taiwan. But Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain called for a more robust weapons package -- a position embraced by arms merchants and many of Taipei’s friends in Washington. And they are now calling on the U.S. to sell 66 upgraded F-16 warplanes to Taiwan for up to $4.9 billion. The Obama administration has yet to decide whether it will approve the contentious sale.

The problem is that Beijing would consider any sale of advanced fighters to Taipei as extremely provocative, and it is probable that such a deal would lead to an escalation in tensions with Taiwan. And U.S. military officials have warned that the sale could also severely strain Sino-American relations at a time when Washington requires Beijing’s support to cope with a host of international challenges.


Obama should not bow to Chinese pressure and scuttle the idea of F-16 sales. Rather, the warplanes should be used as bargaining chips. The administration ought to explore the possibility of agreeing to a deal similar to that proposed by then-President Jiang Zemin to President Bush in 2002. Namely, the U.S. should agree not to sell advanced fighters to Taiwan in exchange for the removal of the 1,500 ballistic missiles that China has deployed directly opposite Taiwan. Such an initiative could yield numerous dividends.

For starters, it is likely that Beijing would seriously consider this proposal, because removal of the missiles would generate a lot of goodwill among the Taiwanese people and the weapons could no longer be cited by local politicians as evidence of Beijing’s hostility. In fact, Taiwan has stated repeatedly that the mainland must either “remove or dismantle” the missiles as a precondition for any negotiations toward a peace agreement.

In Taiwan, removal of the missiles would provide officials with tangible evidence that the policy of cooperation and conciliation with the Chinese mainland is working. The current leaders would be able to more easily move forward with other measures aimed at rapprochement and enhance their prospects for reelection.

Moreover, the move would enable Taiwan to reduce the level of arms purchases from the United States. Officials in Taipei acknowledge (and sometimes complain) that they are pressured by Washington to “do more” to provide for their own defense. But they note that arms purchases are linked directly to the threat posed by the mainland. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry has conceded that the removal of the missiles would prompt the island to “make adjustments on military procurements and research and development.”

U.S. officials have long emphasized that arms sales to Taiwan can serve as a stabilizing factor in East Asian affairs. In this instance, approval of the high-profile F-16 sale would jeopardize relations with Beijing, undermine core American interests and help spark an arms race across the Taiwan Strait. But if Washington uses the prospect of dropping such sales as a bargaining chip to persuade China to remove the missiles, it would help reduce cross-strait tensions, pave the way for closer Sino-American relations and promote peace and stability in the western Pacific.

The choice should be obvious.