The Future of U.S.-Taiwan Defense Cooperation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 21

F-16 Fighting Falcon

For 30 years now, ever since the United States severed formal diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan and recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the U.S. has continued defense cooperation with Taiwan to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Despite continuing pressure from Beijing and volatility in the U.S.-PRC relationship, the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 and a sense of America’s moral obligation to the people of Taiwan have worked to ensure U.S.-Taiwan defense cooperation and the continued sale of U.S. defense articles and services to the island. Every U.S. presidential administration, from Ronald Reagan’s onward, has understood—albeit tacitly—that the use of military force by the PRC against Taiwan would necessitate a reciprocal U.S. response; and the U.S. Pacific Command has maintained its contingency plans for the defense of Taiwan.

Nevertheless, Taiwan’s military capabilities have failed to keep pace with China’s aggressive military modernization and expansion over the past decade—the direct result of policy decisions in both Washington and Taipei. The annual U.S. Department of Defense 2009 China Military Power Report states that, “Since 2000, there have been two peaceful political transitions on Taiwan and a gradual and steady maturation of Taiwan democracy. While Beijing’s strategy toward Taiwan appears to have shifted from seeking an early resolution of the Taiwan issue to one of preventing Taiwan’s de jure independence, by force if necessary, Beijing’s objective of unifying Taiwan with the Mainland has not changed. Since 2000, the military balance in the Taiwan Strait has continued to shift in Beijing’s favor, marked by the sustained deployment of advanced military equipment to the Military Regions opposite Taiwan” [1].

Improvements in Taiwan-China relations since Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist) President Ma Ying-jeou took office and growing U.S.-China economic interdependence, however, also have altered the status quo. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Nationalist may be on a path toward the peaceful resolution of the differences that have been the source of tension across the Taiwan Strait for over 60 years. Thus, in spite of the fact that China’s military buildup in the Taiwan Strait continues, President Barack Obama may now see a Taiwan-China détente as a rationale for dramatically reducing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and the irritation they have consistently been to U.S.-China relations for the past 30 years.

To better understand how U.S.-Taiwan defense interaction may change in the future, however, it is first necessary to consider how it has already changed. In 2000, the March election of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Chen Shui-bien in Taiwan and the November election of George W. Bush in the United States had major impacts on the dynamics of U.S.-Taiwan defense relations. Chen’s election unseated the KMT, which had controlled Taiwan since 1949, and completed the peaceful transformation of Taiwan from a dictatorship to a democracy. In April 2001, President George W. Bush, recognizing that the relative military balance in the Taiwan Strait was changing rapidly in China’s favor, approved in principle approximately $35 billion in major U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. He also altered the structure of the high-level U.S.-Taiwan defense dialogue [2]. Senior Bush administration policy makers sought to place the U.S.-Taiwan defense relationship on a more balanced footing. The collision of a U.S. Navy E-P3 aircraft with a Chinese F-8 fighter over the South China Sea on April 1, 2001, and China’s detention of the U.S. crew after it made an emergency landing in China, no doubt factored into that decision [3].

Chen, however, focused more on his domestic policy agenda and Taiwan’s status in the international community than on Taiwan’s defense needs and U.S.-Taiwan defense cooperation. At the same time, KMT members of the Legislative Yuan (LY)—Taiwan’s parliament—thwarted Taiwan Ministry of National Defense efforts to fund many of the programs President George W. Bush had approved to undermine Chen’s popularity and credibility (Taipei Times, April 16, 2006). Moreover, President Chen’s pursuit of policies intended to move Taiwan toward de jure independence angered senior Bush administration officials because it complicated their attempts to pursue better U.S.-China relations as Washington became more dependent on China internationally and economically. Washington needed Beijing’s assistance in the Six-Party Talks with North Korea and sought its vote in the United Nations to put pressure on Iran. China’s rapid economic growth and U.S. borrowing to finance deficit spending made China and the United States more economically interdependent.

By Bush’s second term, U.S.-China relations were again improving and serious strains in U.S.-Taiwan relations were apparent. Major U.S. arms sales to Taiwan slowed dramatically. Toward the end of the Bush administration, they came to a halt. When Taiwan failed to adequately fund U.S. programs, Washington became increasingly less willing to take the heat from China for U.S. arms sales it might approve but Taiwan might not follow through on. Therefore, Washington forced Taiwan to withdraw its request for 66 new F-16C/D aircraft in an attempt to use it as leverage to influence Chen’s policies and behavior. In October 2008, after a long delay, the Bush administration, following the 2008 U.S. presidential election and just prior to leaving office, notified Congress of only half of the $12 billion in sales pending at the State Department [4]. As of this writing, no arms sales to Taiwan have been notified since President Obama took office in January 2009.

By 2008, when President Ma Ying-jeou was elected in Taiwan and President Barack Obama was elected in the United States, both U.S.-Taiwan defense interaction and the international and cross-strait environments in which they took place were much different than during the 20 years after 1979. Democracy in Taiwan, and the indecision and political infighting that is part and parcel of the democratization process, added a new dimension to U.S.-Taiwan defense dialogue and a new set of players on the Taiwan side.

During the 20 months since President Ma, who made a Taiwan-China détente the centerpiece of his campaign, took office, has made improving Taiwan-China relations a top priority. Cross-strait interaction has increased exponentially, reflecting Ma’s and the KMT’s attitudes that better Taiwan-China relations are critical to Taiwan’s economic growth and future prosperity. It also reflects their concern that Taiwan cannot keep pace with PRC military improvements. Their concern is fed, in part, by Washington’s unwillingness to provide Taiwan with the weapons it would need to do so and by the impact such purchases would have on Taiwan’s national budget in these hard economic times. The downturn in Taiwan’s economy resulting from the current global financial crisis will have immediate and longer-term impacts on Taiwan’s defense budget and its defense acquisition decisions [5].

During the 10 months since President Barack Obama took office, pressure on the U.S. economy brought about by the global economic crisis, unprecedented U.S. deficit spending, and challenges facing the United States in North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan have heightened his concern for good relations with China. Changes in the global strategic political, military and economic environment have led to further improvements in U.S.-China relations, further complicating U.S.-Taiwan defense relations. As of January 2009, China held $739.6 billion in U.S. treasury securities amounting to 24 percent of the U.S. national debt [6]. While China may be as equally dependent on the U.S. market as Washington is on Chinese foreign exchange reserves, keeping U.S.-China relations free of friction is a major objective of the Obama administration.

President Obama recently said that the relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century, demonstrating the great importance that the United States places on good relations with China and the two countries’ growing economic interdependence. In this context, President Obama will travel to China this November seeking to harmonize U.S. and PRC policy on a broad spectrum of political, economic and military issues. In preparation for his meetings with Chinese leaders, U.S. policy officials have conducted a review of U.S.-China and Taiwan policies. The nagging issue of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, no doubt, loomed large in that review. As Assistant Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell indicated in his confirmation hearings, the challenge for the United States is to facilitate the best environment that is conducive to Taiwan’s continuing peaceful engagement with China while providing Taiwan with suitable defensive weapons that afford it the confidence of U.S. support in its interactions with China [7]. How the Obama Administration plans to implement this strategy, however, remains unclear.

As has always been the case, there is much debate within the U.S. government about what constitutes “appropriate” defensive weapons and in what quantities the United States should provide them. China will argue, as will some in the United Sates, that it’s time to adhere to a strict interpretation of the August 1982 Communiqué, which has never been strictly interpreted by the United States in the 27 years that it has been in existence. Since April 2001, the U.S. government has largely ignored it. Nevertheless, China attaches great importance to the communiqué and no doubt will remind President Obama of the commitment made when the U.S. government signed it.    

China may even try to convince President Obama, as it tried to convince President George W. Bush, that the time has come for a new communiqué—one which commits the United States to even greater reductions or even a moratorium in arms sales to Taiwan. Chinese leaders, who have interpreted the slow down in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in recent years, at least in part, as a response to their frequent demarches will continue to press what they believe has been a winning strategy.

Nevertheless, the United States remains bound by the provisions of the TRA [8]. As long as China maintains an array of forces and ballistic missiles along the Taiwan Strait it is difficult for Beijing to claim that it has only peaceful intentions toward Taiwan. Sooner or later, the Obama Administration will notify the sale of Blackhawk helicopters and additional Patriot PAC-3 missiles that the Bush administration held back and the Po Sheng (Broad Victory) C4I operations and sustainment program; to not notify these sales would constitute a major change in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan policy [9]. Taipei requires continued U.S. assistance with Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) to bolster its military capabilities across the board and to achieve an effective missile defense. It is unclear when or if the Obama administration will permit Taiwan to submit a Letter of Request for 66 new F-16C/D fighters. Taiwan cannot maintain a minimal air-defense capability in the coming years without them. The United States and Taiwan positions on diesel-electric submarines remain unclear. The Bush administration held back a notification on the design phase for an FMS program to provide Taiwan with submarines; now Taiwan appears ready to pursue a domestic submarine program with or without U.S. assistance (China Brief, April 16).

Uncertainty clouds the future. The United States will not abandon the core requirements of the TRA; Congress is not about to change the law and many senators and representatives remain strong supporters of Taiwan. Nevertheless, the Executive Branch has broad latitude in how it interprets and executes the TRA. Long delays in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan during the George W. Bush administration saw only modest pressure from the U.S. Congress. The outlook, therefore, given the current state of play in U.S.-China-Taiwan relations for future U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is unclear. Simply stated, the closer U.S.-China relations become, the more difficult it is for the United States to resume major arms sales; and while the U.S. commitment to the TRA is always invoked by those who advocate them, a Congress dominated by the incumbent president’s party is more unlikely to hold hearings or put pressure on the president on Taiwan policy unless U.S.-China relations take a negative turn. Also uncertain is how hard the Ma administration will press the United States for arms purchases. Ma’s initial reluctance to request U.S. and foreign disaster relief in the aftermath of Typhoon Morakot due to his concern for how Beijing might react raises questions about how he will approach U.S. defense sales to Taiwan (Taipei Times, August 26).

China-Taiwan “reconciliation,” however, will likely not happen quickly. Despite recent improvements in Taiwan-China relations, fundamental differences between the systems of government in China and Taiwan, and a lack of broad-based public support in Taiwan for near-term reconciliation will inhibit progress (NowNews [Taiwan], October 20). Furthermore, no one should assume the gains made to date are irreversible. History never moves in a straight line.

While the above portends negative trends for U.S.-Taiwan defense relations, the outlook is not without positive aspects. U.S.-Taiwan defense cooperation after 1979 has survived numerous difficult challenges. Taiwan’s first Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) published in March 2009 sets forth ambitious goals for improving Taiwan’s military capabilities and transformation of the Taiwan armed forces to an all-volunteer force. It provides for a defensive posture the Obama administration can support while maintaining good relations with China so long as the United States stands firm on its obligations under the TRA. Assistant Secretary Campbell hit the nail on the head: the challenge for both the United States and Taiwan is to find the optimal environment that is conducive to Taiwan’s continuing peaceful engagement with China while providing Taiwan with suitable defensive weapons that afford it the confidence of U.S. support in its interactions with China. Responsibility for success rests with both Washington and Taipei.


1. Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China, p. VIII.
2. Following the resumption of US arms sales to Taiwan after the 1979 one-year moratorium, the US accepted Taiwan’s arms purchase requests once a year during an annual arms sales meeting. Beginning in April 2001, President Bush determined that Taiwan should be treated as a normal FMS customer and allowed Taiwan to submit Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Letters of Request (LORs) at any time.
3. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, China-U.S. Aircraft Collision Incident of April 2001: Assessments and Policy Implications, October 10, 2001.
4. Arms sales notifications to Congress are posted at
5. U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, Defense and Security Report, Second Quarter 2009, pp. 13-15.
6. Major Foreign holders of U.S. Treasury Securities (2008), U.S. Treasury Department,
7. U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, Defense and Security Report, Second Quarter 2009, p. 15.
8. The Taiwan Relations act of 1979.
9. No administration official has ever questioned the propriety or appropriateness of these sales, it is just a matter of when they will be notified.