Arms for Taiwan, finger for China

The US and Taiwan have good relations. Though the US does not officially recognise Taiwan as independent from China, like the rest of the world it treats Taiwan as what it is: a de facto independent state. And now it is apparently time for a new arms deal between the US and Taiwan. The US sells arms to just about everyone, so why not to a little island in the Pacific? What could China possibly be angry about?

If you answered “a lot”, you not alone. Since the government of China considers Taiwan a renegade province which will, inevitably, one day be reunited with its true owners, and since a huge number of people in China fervently agree, American arms sales to Taiwan are a kind of provocation. If the Chinese government sold weapons to al Qaeda, Americans would feel approximately the same as the Chinese do at present.

I believe that any group of people that wishes to be independent should be, regardless of what some militant nationalists say. Therefore, I am all in favour of Taiwan’s continued independence from China. However, there is no reason to provoke China by selling Taiwan another $6.4b in arms. As I said, I support independence, and the US government has already made it clear that it does too. It established the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 and updated it with the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in 2000. The Acts both authorise arms sales but the central clauses state in clear terms that the United States guarantees Taiwan’s security and independence. Even though it has always denounced it, China’s government grudgingly accepts the security pact. Why antagonise China further?

The United States needs China. Its government, in particular, through decades (or at least one decade) of myopic policies, is financially dependent on China like a teenager with a credit card is dependent on his father to bail him out. The two countries are, of course, economically interdependent; witness the Chinese government’s understandable threat of sanctions on American arms manufacturers. They should be cooperating more on political and military levels–in the Security Council; on East and Central Asian security matters, where their interests coincide; on Iran, which for some reason Barack has a desire to punish but which China is wisely declining to rush into a decision on; the list continues. Their divergent attitudes on the Dalai Lama are another source of Chinese anger, but the US government accepts Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, and can leverage this acceptance to extract other concessions. Neither has an interest in war with the other.

The problem is, at root, one of ego. China and the US both see themselves, at a cultural level, as the rightful superpowers of the world. Each needs to be the best in the world, the biggest, the richest, the fastest, the strongest. Over the next generation, we will see this playground need for supremacy play out everywhere from the oceans to the Olympics. But why do we need to be number one? Surely, we should be working to be better than our former selves, not better than others. But instead of setting our own goals and working with others to achieve them, we treat others as competitors and train to beat them, even cheating or holding them down if necessary.

Only through recognising their common interests and cooperating on them will the US and China avoid violent collision. Billions of dollars in arms sales to Taiwan is not the way to build a partnership that affects the entire world.

I should mention one other point, however. China’s government (unlike its people) do not actually want Taiwan to be “reunited” with the mainland. Claiming unwavering and fully legitimate sovereignty over Taiwan serves two functions. It is a kind of bone thrown to the Chinese people that whips up anger at foreigners for their support for Taiwanese independence, which in practice means more support for the CCP. And it can be a blunt foreign policy instrument to use against foreign governments, to extract concessions: you owe us for your support of Taiwan. Though I still think the US should not antagonise China unnecessarily, there is every reason to regard China’s claims about Taiwan skeptically.

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