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US: Arms Sales to Taiwan Not Influenced by Sino-American Relations

Taiwan fighter jets (file photo)

Taiwan fighter jets (file photo)

Two senior U.S. officials say that when Washington makes decisions on whether to sell arms to Taiwan, it is not influenced by the affect such deals might have on U.S. relations with China. U.S. officials said Wednesday that such decisions are based on the needs of Taiwan's military.

Last year, China severed military to military contacts with the United States for several months after Washington approved a multi-billion dollar arms deal to Taiwan -- a self-governing island that Beijing regards as part of China. The sale included air defense missiles and other advanced military hardware.

A further request from Taiwan to upgrade its U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets has yet to be approved, and some analysts say the Obama administration is delaying the deal to avoid the possibility that Beijing will suspend Sino-American military relations.

David Helvey, the principal director for East Asia policy at the U.S. Defense Department told a Congressional hearing on Wednesday that although the Obama administration understands China’s concerns, such decisions are based on Washington’s legal obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.

"We base those determinations on our assessment of Taiwan’s defense needs -- based on its security requirements and the military balance in the Taiwan Strait. We do not consult with any other country. We do not consult with China," Helvey said.

Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is obligated to provide Taiwan with sufficient defensive arms to meet its self-defense needs. In his remarks Wednesday to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Helvey did not comment on the F-16 request from Taiwan.

Helvey said that since China resumed military ties with the United States late last year, the two countries have made what he calls "modest progress," with meetings in October and December, as well as a visit to China in January by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

Helvey added that the major challenge for the United States in its military relations with China is to keep channels of communication open at all times.

"Particularly during periods of friction or tension or when we have disagreements, so we can avoid the potential for miscalculation or misunderstanding where you can have a difference between the two sides devolve down into a crisis or tension in the relationship that could lead to conflict," he said.

Daniel Kritenbrink, the State Department's acting deputy assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also spoke at the hearing. He said that dialogue is important not only for the two countries' militaries. He noted that strategic mistrust between civilian and military leaders is the biggest challenge for Sino-American relations.

"It’s when things are tense that we need to be talking the most. We are trying to convey those messages in the most direct way possible. We try to be as supportive as possible of minimal engagement as civilians, and we are trying to look perhaps at some creative ways that we can try to build greater strategic trust," Kritenbrink said.

Kritenbrink said the U.S. government views relations with China and arms sales to Taiwan as two unrelated issues.

China does not see it that way. In its recently released white paper on defense, Beijing said arms sales to Taiwan severely impede relations between the United States and China as well as the peaceful development of ties with Taiwan.

Taiwan and China split during a civil war in 1949, and Beijing has threatened to use military force against the island if it declares independence. In recent years, however, relations between the two have improved, particularly in terms of trade.

But Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, who has spearheaded efforts to improve relations with Beijing, is also pressing the United States to sell Taiwan 66 F-16 C/D fighter jets -- a much more advanced version than Taipei currently owns.