Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 7

While combat in Afghanistan could be the first phase in a protracted war in that region, America should not ignore other potential conflicts that could engage U.S. forces. One such conflict could be between Communist China and democratic Taiwan. Thus, as we train our sights on Osama bin Laden and his fellow terrorists, we must simultaneously mobilize to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack, the possibility of which grows with each passing day.

War in the Taiwan Strait is now as much or more likely than war on the Korean peninsula. In Korea, deterrence is sustained by 37,000 American soldiers and 600,000 Combined Forces personnel and because North Korea’s economic crisis in the 1990s degraded its military capabilities. Although some U.S. estimates note that their economy has recently improved, thanks to large infusions of international aid, the long-term outlook for North Korea is bleak.

China, on the other hand, is a rising power, with consistently high economic growth rates and, since 1989, annual double-digit growth in military spending. Rising powers have rising ambitions. While the Communist regime ultimately desires to predominate throughout East Asia, its immediate goal is to “recover the lost territories.” With Hong Kong and Macao back in the fold, Taiwan remains the last obstacle to achieving that dream. Consequently, the absorption of that island is now priority one for Beijing.

In the past two years Beijing has lowered its threshold for using force against Taiwan, declaring in its February 2000 white paper that Beijing reserved the right to use force if Taiwan merely procrastinated on reunification talks. The vice chairman of China’s powerful Central Military Commission, Zhang Wannian, was reported to have declared that war with Taiwan is “inevitable” by 2005.


Beijing has backed these threats with an ominous military buildup, geared toward intimidating and, if necessary, attacking Taiwan (and any U.S. forces that might come to Taiwan’s aid). In recent years, China has purchased or developed a raft of weaponry and technology–advanced submarines, destroyers armed with supersonic cruise missiles, top-of-the-line fighter jets with helmet-sighted missiles, refueling tankers, airborne command and control systems, antisatellite capabilities and more–all designed to project power and give the U.S. military pause.

At the forefront of China’s new arsenal are the 300 or so short-range ballistic missiles it has deployed along the coast opposite Taiwan. With numbers expected to surpass 650 by 2005, these weapons will almost certainly lead any attack on Taiwan, with the aim of destroying military command centers, bases and key civilian infrastructure installations. Most of all, China’s missiles will be used to strike fear into the hearts of the Taiwanese populace and government, to force an early capitulation by Taipei.

In a 1999 report to Congress, the Pentagon mentioned many of these trends and concluded that by 2005 the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait could begin to shift in Beijing’s favor. This could tempt Beijing to start a war. U.S. involvement in such a war is almost certain, given America’s long friendship with Taiwan, its strategic interests in the region and the implied U.S. commitment to Taiwan in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

Thus, the United States has a huge stake in assuring that China never calculates it can get away with aggression against Taiwan. In Korea, deterrence is assured with a massive and robust military posture. Not so in Taiwan.


The closest U.S. forces to Taiwan are on Okinawa, over 500 miles away. That puts Okinawa beyond the unrefueled range of the F-15s stationed there at Kadena Air Base. Yokosuka, Japan, where the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk is permanently home ported, is a day’s sail from Taiwan. It is also frequently out of area, as it is now, having been ordered to the Arabian Sea for operations against Afghanistan. Moreover, these forces are slated to be the first reinforcements in a Korean campaign and thus would be unavailable should hostilities break out in both places.

Given the current political impossibility of putting U.S. forces in Taiwan, U.S. strategy rests on Taiwan being able to hold its own against China for at least several days until the cavalry arrives. Unfortunately, Taiwan’s military has a host of unmet needs. In particular, Taiwan lacks any advanced, long-range weaponry that could preempt or disrupt Chinese operations on the mainland, has no ability to detect missile launches, and has insufficient C41 (command, control, communications, computers and intelligence) capabilities. The U.S. Navy has also concluded that Taiwan needs submarines for countering a Chinese naval blockade and Aegis-equipped destroyers to provide it with sea-based air defenses in the years beyond 2010.

Taiwan is impeded in its efforts to redress these shortcomings by a closed, turf-conscious military culture and by a stingy legislature that has slashed defense expenditures. Even more detrimental is the near total isolation of Taiwan’s military since 1979. This situation is imposed on Taiwan by an outdated U.S. policy that is, frankly, inadequate to the task of checking China’s designs on Taiwan. The United States maintains a multitude of restrictions on its defense relationship with Taiwan, both substantive and symbolic.

On the substantive side, U.S. policy has prevented any kind of operational contact between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries. There are no joint U.S.-Taiwan military exercises. There are no direct, secure communications channels between the U.S. and Taiwanese defense establishments. American defense advisors are often proscribed from giving Taiwanese personnel advice on how to use the weapons we sell them. U.S. flag officers are prohibited from traveling to Taiwan.

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have also been inadequate. Many approved systems have been dumbed down, like the F-16s sold in 1992. Other requests remain unapproved, such as the Aegis destroyers, High Speed Antiradiation Missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munitions. Still others languish in limbo, such as submarines, which Washington has approved but for which it has not found a builder.

On the symbolic side, Taiwanese military personnel are required to wear civilian clothes or coveralls when they train in the United States. Taiwan’s pilots cannot wear their name badges while training in the United States. Taiwanese personnel graduating from U.S. defense colleges are told they cannot display the Republic of China flag in their class photos. The pettiness of these restrictions, no doubt the work of eager bureaucrats at the State Department, is appalling.

In many respects, our defense relationship with Taiwan is less robust than our budding relationship with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This irony was on full display in early June 2001. At that time the PLA began large-scale exercises off Dongshan Island that were publicly billed as practice for attacking an island, namely Taiwan, and an aircraft carrier, which are possessed only by the United States. One might think this would be countered by joint U.S.-Taiwan exercises, but instead, the U.S. military was hobnobbing with PLA observers at a naval mine countermeasures exercise off Singapore. Meanwhile, Taiwanese defense attaches and diplomats were being uninvited to a swearing-in ceremony in Washington for a new Undersecretary of State.

Though a conflict in the Taiwan Strait looms, the United States is still beholden to an anachronistic policy that at times has bordered on gross negligence. Progress was made in reversing this dangerous situation in the early months of the Bush administration with the approval of a large arms package, indications of a willingness to consider lifting certain restrictions and the President’s mercifully clear pledge to defend Taiwan. This progress must be built upon and sustained throughout the war on terrorism, or else the United States may find itself fighting on another front.


Jim Doran is a senior professional staff member for Asian and Pacific Affairs on the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate. The views expressed are solely his own.