U.S. Arms Sales to Taiwan: Capitulation to a Rising China?

The People's Liberation Army on display. China's growing economic and military might has caused concern in the West.

The Obama administration has reportedly decided not to sell Taiwan the new F-16 fighter jets it wants, but instead merely to help Taiwan refurbish its existing fleet of combat aircraft.  Senator John Cornyn (Republican-Texas) released a statement on Friday saying “today’s capitulation to Communist China by the Obama administration marks a sad day in American foreign policy, and it represents a slap in the face to a strong ally and longtime friend.”  The alleged “sellout” of Taiwan has prompted some members of Congress to pursue legislation requiring the administration to maintain closer relations with Taiwan on military and economic issues.

The U.S. originally recognized Taiwan as the legitimate government of mainland China after the Chinese Communists took over the mainland in 1949.  When the U.S. officially recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which obligates the U.S. “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force  or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or  economic system, of the people on Taiwan.”

But as China has grown in economic and military strength, and has begun to expand its conception of “core national interests” to include the South China Sea, the U.S. appears to be increasingly concerned with maintaining good relations with the rising giant.  Scholars who have studied power transitions (when a declining hegemon, or dominant country, is challenged and eclipsed by a rising power) have noted that these transitions are usually very violent.  But some research suggests that if the declining power is smart about managing its relationship with the rising power, the transition can be peaceful.  So perhaps the U.S. is right to be conciliatory toward China at this point.  After all, China is not only a potential threat in the military arena, but its economy is closely intertwined with America’s through trade and its possession of a sizeable portion of U.S. debt.  But critics have charged that this pragmatic approach ignores China’s human rights violations, unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, and increasing aggressiveness in the region.

Is America’s approach to China likely to prevent conflict and ease the power transition between America and its rising challenger?  Or does this conciliatory approach risk appeasing an autocratic regime that will only expand its ambitions as it grows in power, making a serious clash inevitable?

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