BG1163es:China's Arms Require Better U.S. Military Ties With Taiwan

Report Asia

BG1163es:China's Arms Require Better U.S. Military Ties With Taiwan

March 11, 1998 3 min read Download Report
Richard Fisher
Distinguished Fellow in China Policy

The traditional objective of the United States in the Taiwan Strait has been to prevent conflict until the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC) settle their differences peacefully. To this end, under the provisions of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States has sold defensive weapons to Taiwan to deter Chinese attack.

The willingness of the United States to come to Taiwan's aid in the event of an attack was made clear in March 1996 when China undertook threatening military exercises on the eve of Taiwan's presidential election. The United States responded with its most powerful show of military force toward China since the Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950s, deploying 2 aircraft carriers and 36 ships and submarines in support.

Recently, however, the Clinton Administration has expanded the scope and depth of political and military contacts with China's armed forces while refusing to upgrade military contacts with Taiwan. This may undermine deterrence by causing Beijing to perceive that it can isolate Taipei further from Washington and eventually be able to use military force to coerce or subdue Taiwan.


Several factors contribute to endangering deterrence in the Taiwan Strait:

  • China is pursuing a broad military modernization program, assisted by access to foreign military technology. China is seeking advanced information systems like radar satellites, highly accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, supersonic antiship missiles, and modern submarines. These weapons could give China a significant advantage over Taiwan's military forces.

  • The United States has expanded military-to-military contacts with China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). Scores of U.S. brigadier generals and rear admirals visit China annually as part of the National Defense University's Capstone program, and a number of top PLA officers have come to the United States. Pentagon strategists hope that many high-level officer exchanges will help open the secretive PLA so they can learn more about its doctrine, nuclear forces, and modernization plans. PLA visitors are briefed on broad U.S. doctrine and modernization plans. PLA officers also have been allowed to inspect modern U.S. weapon systems. But the PLA has yet to grant the U.S. military equal access to its advanced hardware, doctrine, or modernization plans.

  • The Clinton Administration is reluctant to upgrade military-to-military contacts with Taiwan. The Administration strictly limits U.S. officers visiting Taiwan to the rank of colonel or below and permits only visits connected with arms sales. When the Capstone program sends U.S. generals and admirals to Beijing, they are not allowed to visit Taipei, too. Senior ROC military officers may visit Washington, but only to discuss equipment purchases. ROC officers train in the United States to use specific weapons, but they generally do not learn about current U.S. doctrine or operational methods.

Limiting the military dialogue between the United States and Taiwan hurts both sides. Both the ROC military and the U.S. Pacific Command lose by knowing less and less about one another's doctrine, operational methods, and readiness. This will handicap the United States and Taiwan in a future confrontation over the Strait, especially if the United States decides to intervene to support Taiwan. An inability to understand ROC military actions or to be able to communicate securely with ROC commanders may result in "friendly fire" incidents between U.S. and ROC forces during future crises. For its part, the United States loses opportunities to bolster deterrence on the Taiwan Strait by being unable to assess effectively the state of Taiwan's military preparedness.


Over the next decade, Taiwan will require new military technologies to be able to sustain deterrence, and the United States must consider how to meet these needs now. The United States should consider selling Taiwan:

  • Advanced targeting and missile defense systems,

  • Digital data links,

  • High-altitude unmanned reconnaissance aircraft,

  • Vertical take-off fighters and support aircraft, and

  • Modern conventional submarines.

The United States also should interpret the Taiwan Relations Act's definition of "arms of a defensive character" to account for the expanded threat posed by China's ongoing military modernization.

Although the Taiwan Strait is calm now, tensions there could embroil the United States again in the next decade. China is building its armed forces to add strength to its diplomacy and to give its leaders military options to "solve" its Taiwan problem. As the 20th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act approaches, the United States must help Taiwan counteract China's threatening military buildup so that Beijing and Taipei eventually can settle their differences peacefully.

Richard D. Fisher, Jr., is former Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.


Richard Fisher

Distinguished Fellow in China Policy