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July 27, 2017

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Trump could force Taiwan into arms race

Last week, Chinese military jets circled Taiwan. Today the Taiwanese government acknowledged that China could send naval vessels to follow suit. These actions are clearly meant to signal China's acute sensitivity and wariness toward the United States, as well as its opposition to any change to the "one China" policy, which the U.S. president-elect called into question last week.

Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office warned of consequences and damage to Sino-U.S. relations if the principle were challenged.

Tsai Ing-wen's strategic gambit to raise Taiwan's international profile via a Trump phone call has continued to play out to the island's disadvantage. While Washington emphasized that its stance on the "one China" principle had not changed and that Taiwan was a partner and not a bargaining chip, it also noted quite conveniently that it was time for Taiwan to up its military spending, (a statement likely to soothe defense contractors after stock prices tumbled in response to a Trump tweet implying U.S. defense spending would be cut). Taiwan's military subsequently confirmed that new strategies were being formulated and that once approved, new resources would be injected to implement them. Premier Lin Chuan's assertion that large increases previously deemed impossible for the 2017 budget may now be up for negotiation.

Are there causal links between Trump's public criticism of the "one China" policy and the U.S. defense department's urging that Taiwan increase its military spending? If so, what would such a development entail?

We should remember that U.S. Senator John McCain, leader of the influential Armed Services Committee, led the largest-ever delegation of senators to visit Tsai in Taiwan in June. It was also the first time the committee chairman had visited the island in 24 years. The visit underscored the importance of arms sales in maintaining Taiwan-U.S. relations, which were part of Taiwan's bid to join the Tran- Pacific Partnership (TPP). Experts and policy analysts have argued for years that Taiwan's defense spending should amount to at least 3 percent of the country's GDP in order to maintain a credible deterrence against China's buildup over the years.

The calculus of Washington-Beijing-Taipei relations following Trump's victory last month will only strengthen these arguments. While the TPP may be on life support, (or, as some infer, dead already), arms deals are likely to be the grease on the wheels to further Taiwan's bid to forge more extensive trade relations with the United States as an alternative.

The consequences of these actions mean that Taiwan is rapidly moving toward pursuing a less ambiguous posture between the United States and mainland China, a stance that will diminish its chances to becoming an important broker for stability. What remains to be seen is what Taiwan will put on its shopping list as part of its new defense strategy and whether hawkish Trump advisers, including those who see confrontation with Beijing as almost inevitable, will approve of them. Advanced weaponry for Taiwan may seem defensible in relation to a more assertive China, but it may in turn spark an escalation in the region that could cause its destablization.

It is moot whether Tsai's scheming caught an inexperienced Trump unprepared: What matters is that the door is now wide open for the U.S. military industrial complex to exploit business opportunities involving Taiwan.

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