SCMP: Former US defence official calls US arms sales to Taiwan a catalyst for cross-Strait dialogue

US military sales to Taiwan are a force for stability and a catalyst for cross-Strait dialogue, allowing Taipei to negotiate with Beijing “without a gun to their heads”, said a recently departed senior US defence official and prime architect of the US Indo-Pacific strategy.

“Our arms sales actually have a very good track record of promoting cross-Strait dialogue,” said Randall Schriver, chairman of the Project 2049 Institute, a security-focused think tank, who left his job as assistant secretary of defence for Indo-Pacific affairs in late December.

The sale of 150 F-16s fighter aircraft to Taiwan in 1992 led a few months later to the first cross-Strait dialogue, he said.

The sale of US$6.4 billion in missiles, helicopters and other weaponry in 2008 during the Obama administration led to the historic 2010 China-Taiwan Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement reducing tariffs and trade barriers. And the sale of a major package of destroyers, helicopters and amphibious vehicles in 2001 was followed by China and Taiwan both joining the World Trade Organisation.

The US is required to defend the self-governed island under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

Schriver, a China hawk and former US liaison with the People’s Liberation Army, said US policy is not anti-China. But as Beijing has expanded in the South China Sea and adopted a more confrontational approach, competition between the two superpowers has increased on a host of regional, global, cyber and space fronts.

“It’s global in nature. But the primary driver for PLA military modernisation remains Taiwan,” he said. “The primary source of tension between the US-China remains Taiwan, I would argue. And the most likely place where we’d have a problem, if not a crisis, remains Taiwan.”

But Taipei needs to do more and do it faster to better defend itself, he added, including buying and deploying the right weapons systems and developing more flexible defence strategies.

Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute, said Schriver’s argument that US arms sales lead to greater cross-Strait dialogue is somewhat counter-intuitive.

“But people miss the element of Taiwan feeling it has the capacity to negotiate on a more equal footing,” he said. “The logic is, with more meaningful arms sales to Taiwan, that could deter Beijing from using force.”

Beijing’s rather blunt tactics in isolating Taiwan could backfire, added Sean King, senior vice-president with consultancy Park Strategies LLC.

“Beijing is almost pushing Taiwan to establish its own identity by isolating Taiwan,” he said. “Trying to say the ROC doesn’t exist almost brings forward the creation of an independent Taiwan,” he added, referring to the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name.

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