Time to Rethink Arms Sales to Taiwan

NOVEMBER 2, 2020

On the surface, selling arms to Taiwan makes sense. Taipei has been an American ally for many decades and the United States has promised to help the island defend itself against China. Advocates of the most recent deal argue that the Harpoon missiles will improve Taiwan’s ability to defend itself from a Chinese attack without direct U.S. involvement.

The reality, however, is that there is no way for Taiwan to defend itself against a concerted assault by China without American assistance. A few more missiles or fighter jets won’t move the needle much. Given this, arms sales to Taiwan increase tensions with Beijing and generate additional risk without providing any significant benefits to the United States. Unfortunately, given Biden’s recent statements, there is little reason to expect a change of course even if the White House changes hands…

Washington has long viewed arms sales as a cheap and low-risk strategy for supporting allies and deterring adversaries. And when China was a much weaker nation, this argument had merit. In decades past, China’s economic and military inferiority was such that American arms transfers to Taiwan may well have increased regional stability. In light of China’s massive growth in economic and military power, however, this logic no longer holds. Today, selling American weapons to Taiwan has a destabilizing effect and the United States cannot ensure Taiwan’s independence at a reasonable cost should war come. New conditions require a new arms sales strategy for Taiwan.