What the United States Owes to Taiwan and its Interests in Asia


Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the Heritage Foundation’s forthcoming Solutions 2016, a policy handbook for federal candidates that is being released this Friday, January 29.


On January 16, the people of Taiwan elected a new president, setting the stage for the third peaceful transfer of power between parties in the island’s history. That achievement would seem routine by now, were it not for the vastly different political situation on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing imposes a very powerful reality. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has never sworn off the use of military power to bring Taiwan under its undisputed sovereignty and authoritarian system. Furthermore, as most recently attested in the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on the Chinese military, “the focus and primary driver of China’s [massive and continuing] military investment” remains “prepar[ation] for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait.”

Put another way: Despite a welcomed warming of relations between Taiwan and China over the last eight years, the only factor that has changed on the military side of things is the magnitude of the underlying threat.

The upcoming political transition in Taipei — to a government implacably opposed to China’s dream of eventual unification — has the potential to intensify the problem. Managing that problem will take real statesmanship in Taipei. The early signs are good. Indications are that, to the extent it’s within her power to do so, President-elect Tsai Ing-wen intends to maintain the status quo and protect the relative tranquility earned by her predecessor.

To give the new Taiwanese government the best prospect of success, it will need a reliable, energetic partner in the United States.

In 1979, Congress made it easy for future administrations to provide this support. They passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). Through continued U.S.–China rapprochement and summitry, the advent of democracy in Taiwan, and China’s unprecedented economic boom with the attendant expansion of U.S. interests there, the TRA has served as legal bedrock to the relationship with Taiwan.

Following his recognition of the PRC as “the sole legal government of China,” President Jimmy Carter looked to establish the basis for continuing “unofficial” relations with Taiwan. Congress agreed, with some modifications, and passed the TRA to accomplish just that. It has proven a remarkably durable and effective arrangement. But that’s not all Congress did with the TRA. Shocked by the switch in recognition and the related termination of America’s mutual defense treaty, Congress addressed several other critical areas.

Arms Sales

The TRA makes it a matter of explicit policy that the United States “will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” It further directs that the “President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan.” This means that, as President Ronald Reagan pointed out in his assurances to the Taiwanese in 1982, the president may not consult with the government in Beijing on arms sales to Taiwan.

President Obama has sold approximately $14 billion in arms to Taiwan. This is to be commended. Half of those sales, however, were initiated by the previous administration. Having fulfilled most of the Bush administration’s pledges — and substituted upgrades of Taiwan’s current fleet of F-16 fighter jets for its requests to buy new ones — the Obama administration waited more than four years to make a new sale. It was the longest such period of inactivity since 1979. The next U.S. president must urgently address the cross-strait military balance by providing Taiwan the forces it needs to credibly contribute to its own defense. The two most important priorities, in this regard, are new advanced fighter jets and diesel-electric submarines.

International Organizations

The TRA prohibits the United States from “supporting the exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from continued membership in any international financial institution or any other international organization.” Taiwan belongs to 35 international organizations or subsidiary agencies, including the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. However, it has been systematically excluded from many others.

Already there are signs that China is preparing to tighten the reins on Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in international organizations. In theory, this should not be China’s call. But, in practice, international organizations must take Beijing’s view into consideration. As such, it has exercised virtual veto power over expansion of Taiwan’s participation. To safeguard and expand on gains made with regard to Taiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization, the next American president should make Taiwan’s need for diplomatic space a priority in its dealings with Beijing.

Security Guarantees

The TRA contains assurances of U.S. concern for Taiwan’s security that are as strong as possible short of a treaty commitment. It declares “that peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States, and are matters of international concern [as opposed to internal PRC concern].” Additionally, it declares that any attempt to determine Taiwan’s future by anything “other than peaceful means” constitutes “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

The TRA further states that U.S. policy is to “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” The United States can best meet this commitment by maintaining its own military capability and readiness vis-à-vis the standing threat to Taiwan from the PRC, maintaining the closest possible military relationship as with Taiwan, and making abundantly clear to Beijing the consequences that will ensue from the use of force.

Finally, it should be noted that nothing in U.S.–China policy or the TRA prohibits the United States from concluding trade agreements with Taiwan. Taiwan has expressed interest in joining the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement (TPP). In a region deeply committed to regional economic integration, Taiwan has been prevented — due to sensitivities over the PRC’s reaction — from joining regional trade pacts, including the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), or making many bilateral arrangements. South Korea, its closest national competitor in the region, is part of the RCEP and has bilateral free trade agreements with the United States, the European Union, and China. South Korea will also likely be the first new member of the TPP, which will further isolate Taiwan and leave it more dependent economically on the PRC. If and when Congress approves a truly trade-liberalizing TPP, the United States should immediately back Taiwan’s accession and work with the other signatories to do the same.

The United States has deep and abiding interests in assuring security and peace for Taiwan. It also has interests at stake in its relationship with China. How it reconciles and manages these is bounded in law by the TRA. Taiwan may be changing; the TRA is not. The next administration can do its best by Taiwan — and in assuring stability in its relationship with China — by simply adhering to the law Congress laid down in 1979.


Walter Lohman is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.