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June 26, 2017

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'What is the U.S. really selling Taiwan?'

Washington and Beijing have been locking horns over the United States government's latest arms sales to Taiwan, as well as some other thorny issues, such as U.S. President Barack Obama's planned meeting with Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

It remains to be seen what will become of the relations between the two superpowers — and theirs with Taiwan.

But one question needs to be asked about the arms sales: What is the U.S. really selling Taiwan? Or what does Taiwan think the U.S. government is selling?

The US$6.4 billion package for Taiwan's defensive needs includes 114 PAC-3 missiles, 60 UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, two Osprey Class mine hunting ships, 12 ATM-84L and RTM-84L Harpoon Block II Telemetry missiles, and 35 multifunctional information distribution systems low volume terminals (MIDS/LVT 1), and 25 MIDS On Ships Terminals.

The Obama administration has not actually approved any new items for the package. Some of the weapon systems were already promised by Obama's predecessor, President George W. Bush, and others are part of some ongoing programs.

But the Obama administration package excluded some of the promises that Bush had made to Taiwan: diesel-powered submarines and F16C/D jet fighters.

That is the hardware side. On the political side, the package comes as Washington's reiteration of its Taiwan Relations Act, which obliges it to sell defensive weapons to the island.

Taiwan does not have too many enemies to defend itself from; perhaps just one. But that happens to be a superpower that claims sovereignty over the island and has constantly threatened to invade it should it declare formal independence.

The hardware that the U.S. is selling Taiwan is not sufficient to defend the island from the hundreds of Chinese missiles targeting Taiwan.

What the U.S. is selling is a sense of security. And Taiwan is happily buying it despite the exorbitant price.

President Ma Ying-jeou's comment on the latest arms sales is that Taiwan will feel more secure and confident when handling cross-strait relations.

That sense of security does not come from the hardware, but rather from the implications attached to the weapons.

The president may not really want to buy the weapons — a time when Taiwan least needs to arm itself — judging from the gradually easing tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

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