Vague. Unique. Uncertain. Inconsistent. Such adjectives could be used in describing both the American level of commitment towards military hardware sales towards Taiwan; as well as Taiwan's level of commitment towards making the economic investments in acquiring such platforms necessary to provide a viable deterrent against Chinese military aggression towards it.
For the United States, the issue of arms sales to Taiwan is not an issue that has been championed or hindered by one particular political party: Since the passing of the Taiwan Relations Act by Congress in 1979, Republican and Democratic administrations have both shown support in the form of weapon sales to Taiwan, as well as refusals of the sale of other platforms requested by Taiwan, often with little explanation behind such decisions. Additionally, the long-standing American policy of "strategic ambiguity" towards its defense of Taiwan has caused uncertainty not only among Taiwanese officials and its citizens, but has also caused speculation within China regarding America's level of commitment towards Taiwan. There is a growing consensus among those with an understanding of the issue, that the lack of a clear American approach towards Taiwan has become outdated, and in need of clarification.
In regards to Taiwan, declining military budgets and domestic political infighting over such budgets and military acquisition purchases have increasingly frustrated many of Taiwan's long-time political allies in Washington. These issues have also raised concern within the American defense apparatus regarding Taiwan's commitment to its own national security interests, as well as a general perception within Taiwan an overconfidence that an American military defense of the island is all but assured in a Chinese military aggression scenario. The relationship between the two countries in respect to arms sales and security arrangements has been unclear for decades, and in the wake of an increasingly assertive PRC in regional territorial matters, now is the time for clarity. This series will offer several suggestions in which the United States and Taiwan can each improve their respective actions and procedures towards enhancing this unique and special relationship.
The United States (and Taiwan) should recommit to the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979
On January 1st, 1979 the United States and the People's Republic of China formally established diplomatic relations, which resulted in the official severing of relations between the US and the Republic of China (ROC-Taiwan). As a result, Congress drafted and passed the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which encoded a number of governmental procedures into law that were to be enacted towards Taiwan; ensuring that diplomatic channels remain open between the two countries, as well as establishing guidelines in which the United States was to supply Taiwan with the sale of military hardware for its defense. While the TRA was written to ensure that Taiwan was not permitted by law to be ignored by the American government; it was written in such a way that many areas of the TRA are open for multiple levels of interpretation. The primary focus of this paper is to focus on two areas of the TRA: Expectations of Chinese actions taken towards resolution of the future of Taiwan; and American procedures towards military weapon sales-transfers to Taiwan, and the linkage between the two.
Section 2.3 of the Taiwan Relations Act:
It is the Policy of the United States-
"To make clear that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means"
"To consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area, and of grave concern to the United States"
"To provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character"
It can be assumed that with official diplomatic recognition of the PRC, the United States anticipated that the PRC could move away from its hostile stance towards Taiwan, and establish some lines of communication with the understanding that the United States would continue to supply Taiwan with defensive arms--which at the time gave Taiwan a formidable qualitative and quantitative advantage over the PLA. From the American perspective in the TRA, it can be assumed that the PRC's approach towards establishing a peaceful resolution regarding the future of Taiwan, and its behavior towards Taiwan were one of the preconditions of establishing American recognition of the PRC.
However, as the PRC has strengthened its economy (and in turn modernized its military capabilities), it has shown in both words and actions that it is willing to use non-peaceful means towards a resolution with Taiwan if it deems necessary--actions which run counter to law embedded within the TRA. There is ample evidence to support China's willingness to use military action towards Taiwan:
- The 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis: PLA missile tests were conducted near Taiwan's north and west coasts, with the intention of protesting ROC President Lee's recent visit to the United States, as well as attempting to intimidate Taiwanese voters during Taiwan's 1996 Presidential election.
- The 2000 PRC White Paper : "... if a grave turn of events occurs leading to the separation of Taiwan from China in any name, or if Taiwan is invaded and occupied by foreign countries, or if the Taiwan authorities refuse, sine die, the peaceful settlement of cross-Straits reunification through negotiations, then the Chinese government will only be forced to adopt all drastic measures possible, including the use of force, to safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and fulfill the great cause of reunification"
- The 2005 PRC Anti-Secession Law "Article 8: In the event that the "Taiwan independence" secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan's secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity"Both of the stated PRC documents allow for justification of PRC military intervention due to the lack of clarity in them. In reality, the PRC could deem a newly elected administration in Taiwan would be less open to talks at the speed in which Beijing prefers, or does not hold the idea of a "One-China policy" as it does. Social unrest, natural disasters, or other factors could also justify military action in the words from these documents.
- Although talks between the PRC and the ROC's Ma Presidential administration have resulted in closer ties between the two countries, the PRC continues to place medium range ballistic missiles on its southern coast, at a rate of approximately 100 per year. The People's Liberation Army 2nd Artillery Corps has made no secret that these increasingly accurate missiles are placed in position towards Taiwan.
Solutions for Washington
Although aggressive actions and laws from the PRC towards Taiwan run directly counter to the basis of normalization of relations between the United States and China, it would be foolish and naive to suggest that the US take any actions regarding its diplomatic and economic ties with China; American interests in this regard are myriad and nearly impossible at this stage of its relationship with the PRC. However, if American Presidential Administrations and Congress were to "recommit" to the adherence of the TRA, it could send a clear message to China that its aggressive behavior and actions towards Taiwan runs counter to America's interests in the region, as well American interests stated in the TRA. Although it would take a unified bi-partisan effort by both Congress and the current Presidential Administration (no easy task in the current Washington toxic political environment), there is one step that could be taken that would give pause to Beijing. This step would consist of both the Obama Administration and Congress publicly stating that "Due to China's continued military buildup in its southern region directed towards Taiwan, as well as laws passed by the CCP regarding its intention of using military force towards Taiwan under various scenarios, the United States government has deemed such actions in violation of the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 (as Article 2.3 states the American preconditions of diplomatic recognition with China). As a result, the United States will continue to adhere to the TRA by continuing to sell arms of a defensive character to Taiwan.
The message would be twofold to the PRC:
- Although the United States encourages the recent peaceful means of communication between the PRC and Taiwan, future administrations in Beijing or Taipei could result in the break down of such talks, and the use of force or threatening actions from either side should not be taken as a result.
- If the PRC continues to advance its military capabilities in its southern region that are intended to pressure the Taiwanese government into negotiations; as well as to psychologically intimidate the citizens of Taiwan, the United States will continue to supply Taiwan weaponry necessary to deter PLA military aggression towards it. Some experts have even stated that such sales enhance cross-strait cooperation , as Taiwan is able to negotiate with the PRC in a position of increased confidence.
Although a coordinated American statement such as the one suggested above is unlikely, a more tacit approach could be taken by modifying the complicated (and often politically inconsistent) procedures in which the United States government approves or denies specific military platform purchase requests from Taiwan. Such an action would show Beijing that the American commitment to Taiwan's defense remains intact, and bellicose behavior and laws issued towards Taiwan will only strengthen America's commitment to Taiwan, which is one of the underlying principles behind the creation of the TRA.
In Part 2 of this series, the complicated process in which the United States conducts its arms sales with Taiwan will be explored, and methods of improvement will be suggested (as well as Taiwan's necessary commitment to the TRA).