David An is a senior research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute and was previously a political military officer at the US Department of State.
The US government approved a “marketing” license for submarine components on April 7 that allows US companies to share technical information and brochures with Taiwan. This move follows former US President George W. Bush approval of the possible sale of diesel-electric submarines to Taiwan 17 years ago, in 2001. Though this is good news for Taiwan, the timing is curious since the United States has suggested its support for Taiwan’s submarine program only after Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen had signed a memorandum of understanding a year earlier, in March 2017, to initiate Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program. This may be puzzling since the United States distanced itself from Taiwan’s submarine program for the majority of these 17 years, but is now offering assistance only after Taiwan had ostensibly given up on outside help and decided to produce its own.
A review of the historical record shows that US offer of assistance to Taiwan’s submarine program is not an isolated incident in terms of Taiwan’s efforts to procure cutting-edge military equipment. The United States sold Taiwan its F-16 aircraft in 1992, only after Taiwan developed its own Ching Kuo indigenous defense fighter aircraft (經國號戰機), and recently sold longer range joint standoff weapon (JSOW) missiles to Taiwan, only after Taiwan developed its own indigenous Hsiung Feng (雄風) and Tien Kung (天弓) missile programs. If the United States sold F-16 or longer-range missiles to Taiwan earlier, then Taipei would not need to develop its own.
It would make more sense for the United States to sell submarines, fighter aircraft, and missiles to Taiwan before it develops its own to save Taiwan from all of the research and development, engineering and manufacturing costs. After all, if indigenous weapons are both cheaper and superior to those produced by the top Western global defense companies, Taiwan would keep an all indigenous arsenal instead of buying up similar foreign models later on. The multi-billion dollar question is: Why does the United States tend to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan only after Taiwan develops its own?
US arms sales decision-making policies and laws: Conventional Arms Transfer policy
A key US policy governing arms sales is President Trump’s Conventional Arms Transfer (CAT) policy recently released on April 19. It is publicly available and unclassified, but it derives from an earlier classified version of this policy from the 1990s. In contrast to laws, policies outline the goals of the government or government departments, and how to achieve them. The Executive branch sets its own policies. Alternatively, laws set standards that must be followed, or else those breaking the law could be prosecuted in court. Among the various arms sales decision-making criteria in the CAT policy, several are applicable to Taiwan’s situation.
One key point in the CAT policy is that decisions are based on “consistency with United States interests in regional stability, especially when considering transfers that involve power projection.” Longer range missiles, fighter aircraft, and submarines project military power and ordinance far away from Taiwan’s landmass, so they inherently come along with power projection concerns. These platforms are therefore more difficult for the United States to approve.
Yet, concerns over power projection still do not address the question of why the United States transfers cutting-edge weapons to Taiwan after it develops its own, which is addressed further in the policy: US concern over “the introduction of a capability that may increase regional tensions or contribute to an arms race.” A risk of increased tension or arms race that arises when the United States introduces a new capability, such as advanced fighter aircraft, longer-range missiles, and updated submarines when Taiwan previously did not have such weapons, or if Taiwan currently possesses such weapons but they are outdated and ineffective as with submarines. It explains why the United States is hesitant to approve such cutting-edge weapons.
Whether Taiwan possesses the weapon is a factor, while another factor is China’s rapid military modernization, which justifies the United States assistance to Taiwan to close the gap on a wide and growing cross-Strait military imbalance in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act.
Arms Export Control Act
In addition to the CAT policy, a key US law governing arms sales is the Arms Export Control Act (AECA) of 1968. Section 36(B) of the AECA is especially important in US arms sales decision making for Taiwan, with the most relevant considerations below:
- If the arms transfer would contribute to an arms race.
- If it would increase the possibility of an outbreak or escalation of conflict.
- Reasons why the foreign country or international organization to which the sale is proposed to be made needs the defense articles.
- Why the proposed sale is in the national interest of the United States.
- Estimate of the levels of trained personnel and maintenance facilities of the foreign country or international organization to which the sale would be made which are needed and available to utilize effectively the defense articles.
- Analysis of the extent to which comparable kinds and amounts of defense articles, defense services, or design and construction services are available from other countries.
The earlier discussion of the CAT policy addressed the same AECA points above about the US consideration of whether an arms sale to Taiwan would contribute to an arms race, and whether it would contribute to an outbreak or escalation of conflict. These considerations partially explain why the United States sells advanced weapons to Taiwan after Taiwan develops its own. If Taiwan already possesses those same weapons, then it is less likely to be destabilizing.
Another reason listed in the AECA explains why the United States sells arms to Taiwan after Taiwan already develops or obtains those same weapons: US estimates of Taiwan’s trained personnel and maintenance facilities needed to effectively utilize the requested defense articles. Those personnel and facilities would be inherently lacking before Taiwan obtains those capabilities, which makes the United States reluctant to approve the transfer of advanced items such as fighter aircraft, longer-range missiles, or submarines when Taiwan does not yet possess those capabilities. Then, the United States sells the weapons to Taiwan after Taiwan develops its own indigenous weapons or manages to obtain them from other countries.
Finally, Congress directs the Executive branch to analyze whether the defense articles are available from other countries. One popular interpretation, which is overly altruistic and optimistically in favor of strengthening the US-Taiwan relationship, is that the United States becomes more willing to sell to Taiwan when other countries are not willing to sell to Taiwan out of mercy and compassion. However, the opposite approach is more in line with the reality of global economic competition: if Taiwan could purchase the same weapons from others, and the shifts in regional military dynamics are inevitable, then at least US companies would profit from a sale rather than cede market share to foreign companies. It is telling that then-US President George H. W. Bush announced the major sale of 150 F-16 fighter aircraft to Taiwan during a campaign rally at the General Dynamics plant (now Lockheed Martin) in Fort Worth, Texas.
The above points explain the meaning of Hau Pei-tsun’s (郝柏村) words, who was Chief of Taiwan’s General Staff at the time of the US decision to sell F-16s to Taiwan 1990s, when he stated: “[w]ithout the Lafayette deal, Taiwan would not have been able to get the Mirage 2000 fighter planes. Without the Mirage deal, Taiwan would not have been able to get the F-16s from the US.” By the time the United States sold F-16s to Taiwan, Taiwan had already developed its own IDF, demonstrating that it had the personnel and equipment to handle the advanced technology. France had sold Mirage fighter aircraft to Taiwan, so the United States had business competition in supplying F-16 fighter aircraft to Taiwan. As mentioned, it was announced at a fighter aircraft manufacturing plant.
In the various aspects mentioned above, the US’ CAT policy and AECA explain why the US decision to sell to Taiwan after Taiwan develops its own is not an aberration, but is actually based on consistent US arms sales decision-making policy and law. Therefore, it is a standard feature, not an anomaly. Lessons from the recent US approval of a marketing license of submarine components for Taiwan, in addition to earlier F-16 and missile examples, show the helpfulness of Taiwan’s indigenous weapons programs to spur greater US support and arms sales.
Main point: If Taiwan wants new submarines, it would make more progress by first moving forward on its own indigenous production efforts. Then the United States will be more likely to follow up with much needed components.
 Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, Strait Talk, (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press: 2011), p. 188.