Supporters of a strong US stance on policy concerning Taiwan were relieved on June 29, when the White House directed the State Department to submit overdue formal notifications to Congress for several proposed arms sales to Taiwan. The State Department insisted that the sales are consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) with no change to the US “one-China” policy. Yet, changes in the arms sales process have raised concern about the credibility of US policy and leadership. US and Taiwan officials, military officers, and industry executives waited last year and the first half of this year for the pending notifications. They are almost the same as those leftover from last year. While apparently continuing the practice of waiting to notify multiple sales on a single day, the Trump Administration actually is advancing programs that the Obama Administration failed to notify to Congress. Arms sales are not a so-called “package.” What are some issues, implications, and next steps?
The State Department did not brief or notify Congress of the pending arms sales until late June. On June 15, Chairman Ed Royce of the House Foreign Affairs Committee expressed concern about successive administrations’ delays in arms sales notifications for Taiwan, which have needlessly dragged out the arms sales process. He hoped to see regular notifications in the future. On June 23, Senators Benjamin Cardin, John McCain, James Inhofe, Robert Menendez, Marco Rubio, Edward Markey, John Cornyn, and Ron Wyden sent a bipartisan letter to President Trump, urging his administration to send pending notifications immediately. They also alluded to the lack of consultations with Congress on arms sales to Taiwan, concluding that they “look forward” to discussions on Taiwan’s defense needs.
Seven proposed programs for government-to-government Foreign Military Sales (FMS) involve defense articles or defense services for High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM), Standard Missiles-2, MK-48 Heavyweight Torpedoes, MK-54 Lightweight Torpedoes, air-to-ground Joint Standoff Weapons (JSOW), naval electronic warfare systems, and support for the early warning Surveillance Radar Program (SRP) that tracks missiles from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). These seven FMS have a total value of $1.363 billion. The State Department’s misleading total of $1.42 billion apparently adds a Direct Commercial Sale (DCS) for a vertical launching system (VLS). These programs cover mainly munitions without major platforms, such as helicopters, assault amphibious vehicles, or fighters. The timing was crucial to avoid further delay given Congressional recesses in July and August. Under the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), Congress has 30 days of review after the formal notifications before the programs may proceed.
Implications: Relief and Anxiety
The notifications brought relief because of uncertainty over the Trump Administration’s policies. In Taipei, the Office of President Tsai Ing-wen welcomed the notifications and thanked the United States for its continuing commitment to the TRA and the Six Assurances. Taiwan affirmed two rationales for why arms sales serve international security interests. The weapons strengthen Taipei’s defense and increase its ability and confidence to maintain the status quo of peace and stability, including through talks with Beijing’s authorities.
The notifications also show continued commitment to the decades-old policies on defense and dialogue. First, the administration is basing its policy on the premise that arms sales bolster stability in the Taiwan Strait. There have been lingering questions about US policies toward Taiwan. For example, after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Beijing in March, the State Department simply stated that the US stance on Taiwan is our “one-China” policy and failed to cite the TRA. With Trump’s top priority of seeking the PRC’s cooperation to stop the DPRK’s threats, Senator John McCain warned in April that the administration should seek China’s cooperation but not at the expense of other vital interests.
Second, the notifications reconcile rhetoric and action in the administration’s professed adherence to the TRA. After NSC senior advisor Matt Pottinger stressed in April that the President is committed to the TRA, a gap remained between declarations on Taiwan’s defense and the delay on arms sales. In April, the Commander of the US Pacific Command (USPACOM), Admiral Harry Harris, testified to Congress that, “as the military spending and capability of the PRC grow every year, the ability of Taiwan to defend itself decreases.” Harris stressed that “continued, regular arms sales and training for Taiwan’s military” are important parts of US policy. On June 3 in Singapore, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis reaffirmed the Pentagon’s commitment to work with Taiwan’s democratic government on defense articles as consistent with the TRA. Days later, the Defense Department issued its annual report to Congress on China’s military power. The report warned that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to prepare for contingencies to deter and, if necessary, compel Taiwan to abandon moves toward independence, or to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force, while deterring, delaying, or denying any third-party intervention on Taiwan’s behalf.
Arms sales also add anxiety about China’s potential unhelpful reactions, including possibly raising cross-Strait tension and politicizing US-China military-to-military (mil-to-mil) contacts. Unlike President Obama who would not notify Congress of any major FMS to Taiwan in his first year in office in 2009, President Trump signaled that he accepts friction in a strong US posture in working with China. Beijing responded to the new notifications by stating that it firmly opposes the arms sales but did not name actions against Taipei or Washington. The overall trend in US-China mil-to-mil contact has increased to include even the PLA’s participation at the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) maritime exercise. The PLA could postpone some mil-to-mil meetings, but it seeks to learn from US and allied militaries at the next RIMPAC in Hawaii. China already limits cooperation on North Korea.
Repairing the Process and Other Next Steps
The notifications represent the first of several potential steps for the Executive and Legislative Branches. A priority is to repair the arms sales process with congressional oversight of adherence to the AECA and TRA. Members of Congress, including Chairman Royce and the above-named Senators, have put the administration on notice that it needs to end the distorted practice of waiting to submit notifications as a “package” or “bundle.” Every year from 1990 to 2005, successive Presidents notified Congress of major FMS to Taiwan. However, in 2006, there was no such notification from President Bush. In 2008, he “froze” arms sales until October 3. As noted above, Congress received no such notification in 2009. There was a gap of four years between notifications in 2011 and 2015. President Obama withheld notifications last year. See footnote for annual values.
An issue is whether the Administration adheres to the TRA. Inter alia, it stipulates that the president and Congress shall determine arms sales “based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan.” The test will be when the administration has the next program ready to restore regular, routine notifications to Congress.
The broken process with the distortion of “packages” has delayed FMS as well as DCS that were customarily notified without publicity. After notifications of FMS in January 2010, the Obama Administration held up three DCS until August 2010. Likewise, there was one DCS program among the notifications on June 29, 2017.
A credible process also would restore full consultation with Congress, not just a couple days of informal review before the latest formal notifications. The process calls for 20 days of informal notification then 30 days of formal review.
In addition to ending the distortion of “packages,” the administration looks to replace Obama holdovers with Trump’s own personnel in the Defense and State Departments, including at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). Positions also could change, such as separating the portfolio on Taiwan from that on China.
Other issues confront how to modernize platforms in Taiwan’s military, including dealing with its insistence on flying outdated F-5 fighters, devoting limited funds to indigenous submarines and trainers, and seeking new fighters. In addition to potential upgraded weapon systems and technology transfers, more US-Taiwan mil-to-mil exchanges could enhance realistic training to improve personnel and cyber security.
Main Point: In notifying Congress of overdue arms sales to Taiwan, the Trump Administration closed the gap between rhetoric and action in adherence to the TRA. Potential next steps include ending the distorted practice of “packages.”
 The annual total values of major FMS as notified to Congress are summarized as follows (in $ million): 1990 ($153); 1991 ($372); 1992 ($6,406); 1993 ($2,184); 1994 ($171); 1995 ($267); 1996 ($1,034); 1997 ($1,247); 1998 ($1,296); 1999 ($637); 2000 ($1,866); 2001 ($1,082); 2002 ($1,521); 2003 ($775); 2004 ($1,776); 2005 ($280); 2006 ($0); 2007 ($3,717); 2008 ($6,463); 2009 ($0); 2010 ($6,392); 2011 ($5,852); 2012 ($0); 2013 ($0); 2014 ($0); 2015 ($1,718); 2016 ($0); 2017 ($1,363) as of June 29.