Academic journal article Parameters

Imbalance in the Taiwan Strait

Academic journal article Parameters

Imbalance in the Taiwan Strait

Article excerpt

Abstract: This study outlines present US policy on arms sales to Taiwan. It also examines options an American administration may wish to consider to address the growing military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait. The author argues that some new thinking may be required if Washington, Beijing, and Taipei hope to realize a peaceful resolution of the "Taiwan question."

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Although the United States has long recognized the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the legitimate government of all China, it maintains a robust military relationship with the Republic of China on Taiwan (ROC or Taiwan). Indeed, in 2011, Taiwan was the largest purchaser of US defense items and services in the world. (1) Despite America's support, however, the military balance across the Taiwan Strait--in terms of personnel, force structure, arms, and developments in military doctrine--continues to shift in China's favor. This study outlines the present US policy on arms sales to Taiwan; it also examines several options a US administration may wish to consider to address the growing military imbalance between Taiwan and the PRC. Some new thinking may be required if Washington, Beijing, and Taipei hope to realize a "peaceful resolution" of the Taiwan issue.

US Policy

On 15 December 1978, the United States announced the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the PRC, which became effective 1 January 1979. (2) To guide "unofficial" relations with Taipei, the United States enacted the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). The TRA "plus the so-called Six Assurances and the Three Communiques, form the foundation of our overall approach [to Taiwan's security]." (3) In some respects, these documents appear contradictory. When one adds official US statements, proclamations, and secret assurances to the mix, American policy appears more confusing. This confusion has contributed to quarrels over policy--particularly arms transfers. The TRA commits the United States to sell Taiwan the weapons and defense services necessary to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability. However, in the 1982 US-China Joint Communique, Washington promised to reduce its sales of arms to Taiwan gradually, leading to a final resolution. The TRA also mandates that the President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of arms transfers; however, members of Congress often complain they have not been consulted. (4) Meanwhile, the "Six Assurances," a series of commitments made by President Ronald Reagan, appear to abrogate the 1982 US-China Joint Communique. However, some experts charge that recent US administrations have violated the pledge not "to hold prior consultations with the PRC regarding arms sales to Taiwan." (5) For example, on 16 July 2008, Admiral Timothy Keating, then PACOM Commander, reportedly confirmed that he had engaged in "discussions with PRC officials about their objections" to arms sales. (6) Since that time, other high-ranking US officials have made similar statements when discussing which weapons might be sold to Taiwan. (7)

The TRA does not obligate Taiwan to allocate a specific amount of the resources for its own defense. Taiwan's military budget as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has dropped from 3.8 percent in 1994 to 2.1 percent in 2013, and from 24.3 percent of total government spending to 16.2 percent in the same period. (8) A Congressional study observed that the influence of Taiwan's domestic politics over defense decisions was "undoubtedly unforeseen at the time of the TRA's enactment [and] raises potentially consequential questions for Congress." (9) As one exasperated US official complained, "we cannot help defend you, if you cannot defend yourself." (10)

Perhaps most contentious is the accusation that America has "abandoned" Taiwan. A former US Department of State official has charged that the United States has "cut Taiwan loose." (11) Others quarrel with such claims. …

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