The Heritage Foundation

WebMemo #522 on Asia

June 18, 2004

June 18, 2004 | WebMemo on Asia

Needed: High-level Contacts between U.S. and Taiwan MilitaryCommanders

In March 1996, when Chinese ballistic missiles were splashing into waters off Taiwan's two major ports-closing the heavily-traveled Taiwan Strait to international maritime traffic for days-the Clinton Administration sent two carrier task forces to the vicinity to persuade Beijing to quiet things down. But none of the commanders on those American ships had ever done contingency consulting with Taiwan defense officials. Nor did they have secure communication links to Taiwan's navy. To remedy this situation at last, on May 20, 2004, the House of Representatives adopted an amendment to the 2005 National Defense Authorization Act (Section 1215 of H.R. 4200) encouraging the Pentagon to undertake high-level military-to-military exchanges between the United States and Taiwan. Allowing such exchanges is vital to ensuring America's national security interests and foreign obligations.

 

Though exchanges are needed, they are banned under self-imposed restraints drafted 25 years ago by the State Department and followed by administrations since. Given the statements in the Taiwan Relations Act (Public Law 96-8) about opposing attempts to coerce Taiwan militarily, these restrictions never made much sense. But now, given the Chinese military buildup opposite Taiwan, they could be dangerous.

 

Chinese military forces have begun to test Taiwan's resolve and could soon provoke hostilities. U.S.-Taiwan military exchanges and dialogue about contingencies serve two purposes: They put Beijing on notice that a military adventure against Taiwan could have the most severe consequences; and in the event that U.S. intervention does become necessary, they provide a mechanism for success.

 

China will, of course, protest. Still, Congress should pass the legislation, and the Administration should use it as leverage to persuade the Chinese to ease their increasingly provocative military challenges in the Taiwan Strait.

 

Background

A hypothetical line drawn down the middle of the Taiwan Strait has for years served as a de facto sea boundary between Taiwan and China. But in the last few years, Chinese fighter aircraft have begun to ignore the center-line and fly closer to Taiwan itself. During 2002, Chinese jets conducted 1,379 sorties, an average of four a day, to and sometimes a bit over the center-line. In response, Taiwan has scrambled its own high-performance fighters, U.S.-built F-16s and French Mirage 2000-5s.

 

On May 25 of this year, a Hong Kong newspaper controlled by the Chinese government reported that Beijing intended to "smash" any Taiwan military aircraft that crossed into mainland airspace-a further sign that China is getting more aggressive. In the skies over the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan and Chinese high-performance warplanes come within missile range of each other several times a week. Taiwan's new Minister of Defense, Li Chieh, told the Legislature on May 26 that Taiwan's planes had not breached the center-line, had not provoked any Chinese aircraft, and had done nothing to warrant such a warning from the Chinese press. Nonetheless, Minister Li stated that "if PRC jets cross the center-line, our side immediately scrambles fighter aircraft, and the decision of whether or not to destroy the target requires some indication of whether it has hostile intent."

 

At the same time, China's missile threat to Taiwan remains at a crisis level. Since being faced down by American carriers after it fired missiles into waters near Taiwan's two major ports in the mid-1990s, China has rapidly expanded its missile force opposite the island republic. China has deployed 500 to 550 short-range ballistic missiles near Taiwan, adding more at the rate of 75 a year. The use of satellite-aided guidance systems is expected to increase further the accuracy and lethality of this force.

 

Moreover, with the inclusion of four Russian KILO-class attack submarines-considered among the quietest in service-and two advanced Russian Sovremennyy-class destroyers, China has arrayed a formidable naval fleet against Taiwan. These and other modern naval vessels of the Chinese East Fleet have asserted their presence in the Strait and waters surrounding Taiwan over the past two years. And should their operations evolve into a more aggressive posture, the potential for miscalculation would become even greater. Just last month, as a preventative measure during the tense days surrounding the May 20 inauguration of Taiwan's president, a U.S. Navy carrier battle group transited Taiwan waters. Given the tension in the Strait, it should have been in contact with Taiwan's fleet headquarters. Close communications between Taiwan and U.S. commanders is essential to ensure safe naval operations.

 

Conclusion

The Taiwan Relations Act clearly spells out America's interests in the Western Pacific, and to protect our interests and those of its democratic friends and allies, the United States cannot tolerate a PRC attempt to coerce Taiwan militarily. Bad policy habits that adversely affect America's capacity to fulfill the commitments of the Taiwan Relations Act make no sense. China has been increasingly willing to exert military pressures and to make threats against Taiwan. Over the years, the myriad protocolary contortions of U.S. policies to please China have proven ineffective at best, and at worst have actually encouraged China to be even more aggressive.

 

Senior U.S. military personnel (flag officers and civilian officials above the deputy assistant secretary level) should be permitted to travel to Taiwan to engage in the full spectrum of exchanges that are prudent in light of China's military buildup. Exchanges on operational planning, logistics, and intelligence are most effective between officers with command responsibilities. Moreover, there are concerns in the Pentagon that U.S. military teams do not have adequate access to Taiwan's civilian defense and national security leaders and cannot communicate the urgency and importance of critical intelligence on China's rapidly modernizing military force.

 

To remedy these shortcomings, Congress should approve language allowing military exchange between the United States and Taiwan, and the Administration should inaugurate high-level military contacts with Taiwan. These talks must be represented to China as a consequence of China's provocative missile buildup and the years of increasing aircraft sorties at the Taiwan Strait center-line. Unless China sees tangible consequences to its behavior, it is likely to get worse.

 

John Tkacik, Jr., is Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center