Behind the controversial $5.85 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan announced in September rages a heated argument over whether America should abandon the self-governing island to be absorbed by China or should defend it from Chinese conquest.

The sale provides Taiwan with new radar, weapons, and structural improvements for its current fleet of 145 F-16 fighter planes plus a five-year extension of pilot training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona and a supply of spare parts. Left open was the possibility of selling advanced F-16’s later.

An unnamed State Department official, in a press briefing asserted that the sale reflected “the longstanding bipartisan commitment in the United States to the security of Taiwan.” He said it was part of the Obama Administration’s effort to strengthen ties with Taiwan in trade, people exchanges, and energy research.

Chinese officials immediately objected to the sale and said China would retaliate by reducing military exchanges with the U.S. China claims that Taiwan, to which Chinese Nationalist forces fled after their defeat by the Communists in 1949, is an integral part of China and “unification” is a core national interest.

A large majority of the people in Taiwan, however, have shown in polls that they prefer to remain separate from mainland China. A mid-level government official, whose grandparents had come from the mainland in 1949, was asked if she considered herself Chinese or Taiwanese.

“I am Chinese by culture,” she said quietly, “but Taiwan is my home.”

Americans who assert that the Taiwan issue is the most likely cause of war — potentially nuclear war — between the U.S. and China contend that the U.S. should accommodate China to preclude that war. They contend that the U.S. should recognize China as a major power.

A former diplomat, Charles Freeman, advocates accommodation: “For Americans, the Taiwan issue presents an unwelcome choice between potential long-term military antagonism with China and the perpetuation, despite rapid cross-Strait economic and social integration, of Taiwan’s de facto political separation from the mainland.”

Now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, Freeman, who speaks fluent Chinese, deplores U.S. support for Taiwan: “Given the huge stakes for the United States in our strategic interaction with China, this choice might well strike someone looking afresh at the situation as oddly misguided.”

Those who argue for defending Taiwan point to the Taiwan Relations Act, a law adopted by Congress in 1979 to protest President Jimmy Carter’s decision to switch U.S. diplomatic relations from Taiwan to Beijing. It provides for a U.S. commitment to Taiwan just short of ironclad.

Those supporting Taiwan insist that the U.S. would be morally wrong to abandon the democracy that Taiwan has become. They argue that other nations in Asia, notably Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia, which have security treaties with the U.S., would lose confidence in the U.S.

Geographically, Taiwan sits astride the northern entrance to the South China Sea through which passes more shipping each year than through the Panama and Suez Canals combined. Control of Taiwan would give China a potential check over that vital waterway.

Another former diplomat, Alan Romberg, of the think tank Stimson Center in Washington, wrote in a paper recently that Taiwan’s security is important to the U.S. for at least four reasons:

  • Long history of U.S. support for Taiwan’s security. “One does not readily turn away from that,” he said. Democracy and economic progress favor “protecting the island against forced surrender to the mainland rather than abandoning it.”
  • Chinese use of military force “would be destabilizing and harmful to American political, economic and security concerns.” Deterring that would be “very much a U.S. strategic interest.”
  • Refusing to stand up to force would set off tremors throughout Asia and would raise doubts about American nuclear deterrence and might cause Tokyo, Seoul, or Taipei to develop nuclear weapons.
  • While the U.S. would accept an agreement on Taiwan-China relations that was negotiated peacefully, U.S. economic stakes in Taiwan are high. Trade with China is ballooning but that with Taiwan is respectable for a nation of 22 million people.

Long ago, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Britain sought to appease Dictator Adolf Hitler of Germany by declining to oppose Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain told the British they need not get into a war “because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”

To which Winston Churchill, later Britain’s wartime prime minister, was reported to have muttered: “The government had to choose between shame and war. They chose shame and they will get war.”

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth