The Political-Military Dimension of U.S. Policy Toward Taiwan

Report Asia

The Political-Military Dimension of U.S. Policy Toward Taiwan

October 21, 2002 9 min read
Larry Wortzel
Larry Wortzel
Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College

Dr. Larry M. Wortzel no longer works for the Heritage Foundation.

American security policies must be formulated on firm principles that support freedom, protect the American people, and resist coercion. Policies toward the democratic Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan should be framed in the broader context of the most fundamental American values of freedom, democracy, free enterprise, and a strong national defense.

I argue here that the most important factors influencing United States-Taiwan relations, and relations between the U.S. and the People's Republic of China (PRC), are China's proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means for their delivery; its military buildup; its expansive claims to territory in the Asia-Pacific, including Taiwan; and its threats to use force to resolve territorial disputes. Even without the question of the sovereignty of Taiwan, unless there is a change in China's behavior, American interests are threatened. A change in China's threatening behavior, however, from relying primarily on military means and coercion to solve problems to using other inducements, would make a resolution of the tension between the Republic of China and the People's Republic more likely. The resolution of the differences between the PRC and the ROC would be less difficult if Beijing were not a totalitarian Leninist dictatorship, and it seems to me that it is up to Beijing to make it attractive to the ROC to associate itself in one way or another with the PRC.

When it comes to the sensitive matter of American relations with the Republic of China, it is imperative to formulate and execute a consistent strategy that enhances American alliances and relations in Asia while protecting U.S. national interests.

It is easy, however, to be captured by one aspect of relations across the Taiwan Strait, which can skew American policy and even intimidate those who make or influence policy: China's population. The fact that the People's Republic of China has a population of 1.3 billion people has two principal effects. Some Americans focus on population size as a justification for policies that lean toward meeting or accommodating the policy demands of Beijing, perhaps reasoning that size alone justifies tilting policies in favor of Beijing. The desire on the part of some Americans to take advantage of the vast "China market" also influences policy.

It is important to keep in mind that Taiwan is the eighth-largest trading partner of the United States. In 2000 Taiwan had about $3 billion in Foreign Direct Investment in the U.S., $30 billion in exports to the U.S., and $18 billion in imports from the U.S. The PRC is America's fourth-largest trade partner; but in 2000 it imported only about $13 billion in U.S. goods while it exported about $85 billion to the United States. Therefore, while trade with China has increased economic freedom there, a clear goal of American policy, American exports have yet to penetrate the market controlled by the Chinese state. With China a member of the World Trade Organization, bilateral U.S.-China trade should be more balanced as implementation of WTO rules improves the climate there. Moreover, a middle class is forming in China, making people less dependent on the Leninist state and more aware of the costs of war. This outcome satisfies a long-term goal of U.S. policy. It should also be apparent to Beijing that in the event of a PRC attack on Taiwan, American investment in China and China's ability to export goods to the U.S. would be affected. Politico-military factors have economic components. There is also the matter of Taiwan's investment in China, which is at least $40 billion and could be as high as $100 billion.

The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means for their delivery by the People's Republic of China creates a direct threat to the American people. China's proliferation partners include the worst rogue states in the world, all of which have interests inimical to the United States and its allies. China's own ballistic missile buildup threatens the American people. One PRC 5-megaton warhead on Los Angeles, for instance, would kill about 6 million Americans. Therefore, it is important that the United States deploy an effective ballistic missile defense system to make Beijing's coercive threats to target a single American city less menacing. The purchasers of China's WMD systems, however, are less likely to be deterred, making it all the more critical that American policies address Beijing's proliferation behavior.

The PRC is also important as a major power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which makes the politico-military aspects of U.S. policy toward the ROC sensitive. The United States must reassure Beijing that the presence of U.S. forces in Central Asia is a necessary response to the attack on the United States by an organization that was based in Afghanistan. The American presence in Central Asia is not part of some U.S. plan to surround and contain China. Washington should also make it clear to Beijing that improved relations with Russia and India are based on a commonality of interests with those countries. India and Russia are democracies and are trying to reform and privatize what were Stalinist state ownership systems. American relations with India and Russia are not part of a "zero-sum" power triangle meant to tip the balance of "comprehensive power" against China. It is also critical that the U.S. government make it clear to China that Washington welcomes and appreciates whatever support China provides in the war against terror.


The United States has no fundamental interest in how the two "Republics of China" resolve their differences over sovereignty. It is in the American interest to insist that the resolution of those differences be freely agreed to by the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, without force or coercion. Of course, we must understand that today only citizens on one side of the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan, where people vote, can freely express their will. Policies that help Taiwan defend itself from coercion, and keep the United States with sufficient military strength to ensure the security and stability of the Western Pacific, are in America's interest. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 perhaps says it most elegantly:

We will regard any attempt to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including boycott or embargo, as a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and a matter of grave concern to the United States.

In Taiwan today the people have the freedom to express their will about relations across the Taiwan Strait, either through a referendum or through support for a candidate from a political party that runs on a platform supporting one means of resolution or another. Unfortunately, Beijing threatens to turn the Taiwan Strait into a "sea of fire" if the ROC's citizens attempt a referendum. In China, a totalitarian state run by a communist party that insists on the Leninist principle of "democratic centralism," no such free expression of will is possible. The political system in China may allow "village elections," but the Chinese Communist Party does not allow the free articulation of political interest by the people. There is no free press through which ideas can be debated, there is no freedom to associate, and there is no means to support candidates for office from other parties, including political parties that may seek alternative ways of resolving problems across the Taiwan Strait.

It is in the interest of the United States to provide the ROC the necessary defensive goods and services to deter China from using force. It is in the interest of the United States to ensure that Taiwan's armed forces can effectively operate the military equipment it procures, including through military exchanges and training. And it is in the interest of the United States to treat the democratically elected leaders of the Republic of China with dignity when they visit or pass through our country.

The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and their diplomats often counsel American leaders that certain behaviors on the part of the United States toward Taiwan constitute "red lines" beyond which the U.S. must not cross. China's leaders must understand that the "red lines" for American policy are not drawn in Beijing; they are drawn here in Washington--in the Congress through law, in the Supreme Court, by the elected President of the United States, and by the American people. U.S. programs of contact with China must ensure that Beijing understands that elected American leaders have built the guidelines for U.S. relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan into the Taiwan Relations Act and other relevant laws. The three bilateral "Shanghai Communiqués" between the United States and the PRC provide guidelines for the conduct of U.S. policies, as do the "Six Assurances" that President Reagan gave to Taiwan in 1982.


China's recent harassment of the U.S. Navy oceanographic ship U.S.S. Bowditch in the Yellow Sea is an example of how Beijing's expansive claims to territory and belligerent action can lead to conflict. The PLA Navy's harassment of that ship, operating in international waters, is reminiscent of the way that the PLA Navy conducted the intercept of the U.S. EP-3 aircraft in April 2001. Therefore it is imperative that a continued military-to-military dialogue takes place between the United States and the People's Republic of China. A major goal of this dialogue should be to establish "rules of the road" based on international norms and law for the conduct of safe operations at sea and in the air when U.S. and Chinese forces operate in close proximity. Beijing's use of force and coercion cannot be permitted to prevent the United States from exercising its right of free navigation of the seas or airways.

There must also be a military dialogue with Taiwan. The armed forces of the Republic of China have a number of ground, air, and naval systems that are better than those of the PRC. However, I think the People's Liberation Army has the better grasp of how to operate its armed forces in an integrated way in modern war. Beijing may be incapable of manufacturing uniformly high-quality modern military equipment, but China's military leaders and planners have grasped the doctrines of modern joint warfare. The PLA's acquisition program is also putting together a combination of sensor systems, command and control equipment, precision weapons, and modern weapons platforms that can translate the intellectual grasp of warfare into the ability to wage war more effectively.

Military-to-military contacts with the PRC should have clear goals to increase strategic understanding and cooperation where possible while lowering the likelihood of conflict. U.S. military contacts with China should not make the PLA a more effective fighting force and should not make the PLA a more effective tool for the Chinese Communist government to intimidate or repress the Chinese people. Finally, U.S. military and political contacts with Beijing should hammer home the message that American arms sales to Taiwan are controlled in Beijing. By this I mean that if there is no threat against Taiwan by the PRC, then there is no need to provide more defensive goods and services to Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act.

With respect to Taiwan, I am not certain that either military leaders or the elected representatives of the people on Taiwan have a full grasp of why to acquire certain defensive systems and how to use modern weaponry effectively. Therefore, U.S. contacts with the ROC military should emphasize these things.

Military-to-military contacts with Taiwan should be designed to produce an armed force that can deter Chinese aggression, effectively defend that island, and ensure that in the event the PRC uses force America can meet its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.


China's propensity to settle disputes by the use of force threatens American interests in Asia. China's policies on proliferation, that is, supplying missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and the technology to make such deadly instruments of war, to dangerous rogue states that support terror threaten American security and vital U.S. foreign policy interests. China's twenty-plus nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles threaten the United States. And China's threats against Taiwan could embroil U.S. forces in a military conflict. Therefore, it is important that the United States maintain a strong military edge while it engages Beijing economically and politically.

Larry M. Wortzel, Ph.D. is the director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation. He spoke at a panel on "Taiwan and U.S. Policy: Toward Stability or Crisis," hosted by Senator Joseph R. Biden, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at the Russell Senate Office Building on October 9, 2002. The panel was organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Asia/Pacific Research Center of Stanford University, the National Committee on United States-China Relations, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


Larry Wortzel
Larry Wortzel

Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College