The ICAS Lectures

No. 2000-0211-PTB

Fixing U. S. Policy Toward Taiwan

  Peter T.R. Brookes

ICAS Winter Symposium
Asia's Challenges Ahead
University of Pennsylvania
February 11, 2000

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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Biographic Sketch: Peter T.R. Brookes



Fixing U. S. Policy Toward Taiwan

Peter T.R. Brookes

Peter Brookes is the Principal Advisor for East Asian Affairs with the Republican staff of the Committee on International Relations in the US House of Representatives. Prior to coming to Capitol Hill he served in positions in the State Department, the CIA, the private sector and on active duty in the US Navy. He is a Commander in the Naval Reserves and holds degrees from the US Naval Academy, the Naval War College, and the Johns Hopkins University. The views expressed here are his own.

The complications that arose between Beijing and Taipei as a result of Taiwanese President Lee Teng-Hui's comments last summer on special state to state relations with the Chinese Mainland pushed tensions in the Taiwan Strait to a dangerous -- perhaps even critical-- level. Adding to the dilemma is the uncertainty over whether the People's Republic of China (PRC) at some opportune time will take military action against Taiwan in order to discipline like-minded Taiwanese.

Historically, the PRC has been willing to use military force over issues of sovereignty: witness its border wars with India in 1962, the Soviet Union in 1969, and Vietnam in 1979--- not to mention the missile firings in 1995 and 1996 over and around Taiwan. In fact, in September 1999, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji warned that sooner or later the PRC would have to use force against Taiwan to unify it with the Mainland because the Chinese people will become impatient. Following the historic reversion of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese sovereignty, the unification of Taiwan with the Mainland appears to be an increasingly high priority for the PRC leadership and a key component in Jiang Zemin's legacy as the Great Unifier.

As a result, the Taiwan Strait has surpassed the Korean peninsula as arguably the most dangerous flashpoint in all of East Asia. The contretemps between Beijing and Taipei may ultimately force the United States to make serious national security policy decisions involving the employment of American military forces. Regrettably, the potentially explosive situation in the Taiwan Strait is in part due to the Clinton administration's flagging Taiwan policy and its mismanagement of, and perhaps over involvement in, the cross-Strait issue. To wit, the White House has imprudently raised expectations in Beijing over possible movement on the Taiwan question through: misguided talk of an U.S.-Sino strategic partnership; President Clinton's surprise public announcement of the Three Nos in Shanghai in 1998 ; the willingness to suggest both publicly and privately that Taipei reach interim agreements and begin political discussions with Beijing over unification; and the perceived curtailment of arms sales to Taiwan as punishment for Taipei and as a concession to Beijing.

These pernicious actions by the Clinton administration have emboldened Beijing to tell Taipei to face the reality of diminishing U.S. support and return forthwith to Chinese sovereignty. In addition, these White House policy decisions may have encouraged the PRC to take a more aggressive military stance toward Taiwan, as manifested in provocative Chinese military exercises and expanded force deployments in the Fujian province of the Nanjing military region across the Strait from Taiwan.

Not surprisingly, Taiwan and others-- saw these actions by the Clinton administration as evidence of a fundamental, detrimental shift in U.S. policy in favor of the PRC and a movement away from the neutral position on Taiwan's future that Washington has maintained for many years . In fact, the crumbling state of U.S.-Taiwan relations is clearly evidenced by the lack of foreknowledge in the White House about President Lee's special state to state relations pronouncement. The administration's surprise over President Lee's statement unveiled the serious fault lines in the Washington-Taipei relationship that have developed during the Clinton presidency. Some would even go so far as to suggest that President Lee had no other option but to speak out forcefully in an effort to forestall the precipitous slide of U.S. policies in favor of Beijing and against Taipei.

We may never know President Lee's exact motivations; nevertheless, the present realities, volatility, and high state of tensions across the Taiwan Strait call for an immediate course correction of U.S. policy toward Taipei. A fundamental mishandling of Taiwan policy by the U.S. could lead to war with China and all that such a conflict entails for Asian peace, stability, and prosperity. It is time to recast Taiwan policy. First, the U. S. should help Taiwan preserve a military balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. The U.S. has security commitments to Taiwan as stipulated in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA ). The TRA states that: peace and stability in the area are in the U.S. interest; the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means and any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means will be considered a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific and of grave concern to the U.S.; the U.S. will provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character while maintaining the capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the people of Taiwan.

The reality is that China's military power is growing and the modernization of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is an important goal of the Chinese leadership. Reported plans to transition from a defensive-oriented force to an offensive one with power projection capabilities is not viewed as benign by countries of the region and is seen by some as part of Beijing's effort to expand China's influence not only over Taiwan but deep into Asia as well. China's regional security policy is buttressed by: a burgeoning short-range ballistic missile arsenal; its strategic nuclear force upgrades; the development of airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) and cruise missiles; and the purchases of advanced Russian fighters, destroyers, anti-ship missiles, air defense systems, and submarines. These potentially destabilizing developments are exacerbated by Beijing's outright refusal to renounce the use of force against Taiwan and its increasingly aggressive rhetoric toward Taipei. In response, the United States should continue to steadfastly meet its security commitments to Taipei, adhering to the TRA by assisting Taiwan maintain the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait. Failure to meet Taiwan's evolving defense needs will make China's dominance of the Taiwan Strait -- and the surrounding areas-- a reality. An unwillingness to provide for Taiwan's legitimate defense requirements including anti-submarine warfare capability, naval surface combatants, missile and air defense systems, and an early warning capacity, could lead to Beijing's misunderstanding of American interests; foster perceptions of Taiwanese defense vulnerability; increase the likelihood of Chinese miscalculation; and ultimately lead to conflict with Taiwan -- or even the United States.

In addition, the U.S. should call upon the PRC to renounce the use of force against Taiwan and encourage other nations in the region, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Association of South East Nations (ASEAN), to do so as well. China must be politically as well as militarily discouraged from taking hostile action against Taiwan. Second, the United States should adhere to the Reagan Six Assurances. In July 1982, the Reagan Administration wisely promised Taipei that it would not: 1) set a date for the ending of arms sales to Taiwan; 2) consult with China on arms sales; 3) play a mediation role between the PRC and Taiwan; 4) revise the TRA; 5) change its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan; or 6) exert pressure on Taipei to enter into negotiations with Beijing. Regrettably, the Six Assurances have been set aside in part-- or completely ignored-- by the Clinton administration. These commonsense guarantees are a solid basis for American Taiwan policy and should be re-institutionalized as guideposts for the conduct of bilateral relations with Taipei and Beijing. Third, and finally, the U.S. must improve substantive dialogue with Taiwan. Better communications between Washington and Taipei is an imperative. To this end, the U.S. should reestablish vigorous diplomatic and security channels with Taiwan, including sending senior level officials to Taipei and receiving them here. For instance, the U.S. restricts visits to Taiwan to 0-6 (colonel/captain) and GS-15 and below and similarly limits the visits of Taiwanese officials to the United States. This is counterintuitive to achieving better understanding and counterproductive to developing and maintaining meaningful relations. Increased interaction and dialogue between the U.S. and Taiwan governments will reduce the level of uncertainty which has unnecessarily arisen in the bilateral relationship; help restore confidence and trust in both capitals; and improve Washington's ability to influence events across the Taiwan Strait in support of U.S. interests.

Deterring conflict and promoting peace across the Taiwan Strait is an important American national interest, but the Clinton administration's mishandling of Taiwan policy is undermining these objectives and unfortunately may be, in fact, sowing the seeds of conflict through well-intentioned but egregiously misguided policies. The best hope for furthering peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and reducing the likelihood of miscalculation, adventurism, or hostility --by either Taipei or Beijing-- is for America's Taiwan policy to return to its past by assisting Taiwan deter Chinese aggression; re-instituting the Reagan Six Assurances; and increasing diplomatic and security interactions with Taipei.


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