Commentary

The Trouble with Taiwan

Two factors have historically deterred the People’s Republic of China from attempting to retake Taiwan by force: technologically superior Taiwanese weaponry and concern that the United States might intervene with its own military forces. Until recently, Taiwan took seriously its responsibility to purchase arms to defend itself. Unfortunately, the Taiwanese people seem increasingly unconcerned about providing for their own defense, and instead want to rely on an implied U.S. security commitment. If the United States does not force Taiwan to get serious about its own security, the result could be an emboldened China and the risk of war in the Taiwan Strait.

Since the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979, the United States has been legally obligated to sell Taiwan “arms of a defensive character” in order to help deter the PRC from attempting to retake the island by force. In 2001, the Bush administration offered Taiwan an arms sale of roughly $20 billion to counter a campaign of Chinese military modernization aimed directly at retaking Taiwan. Recently, a version of that package, scaled back to $18.2 billion, was approved by Taiwan’s cabinet, but remains held up in the legislature. Opponents of the arms sales package lament that the weapons are too expensive, and that the island has other priorities. In an absurd display of denial, Tseng Yung-chuan, the executive director of the opposition Kuomintang’s Central Policy Committee, remarked in November 2004 that Taiwan’s existing defense budget should be cut in half in order to fund social welfare projects.

Taiwan’s lack of seriousness is unacceptable because it has the effect of pushing the United States to the forefront of the cross-Strait conflict. China’s purchases of advanced KILO class submarines and Sukhoi fighter planes from Russia are eroding Taiwan’s qualitative advantage. Taiwan’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities are insufficient and dwindling, and its air supremacy is waning in the face of China’s acquisitions. All of these trends are getting worse, and creating a sense in China that it may soon be able to take Taiwan by force or intimidate the Taiwanese into surrender.

One apparent factor in Taiwan’s irresponsibility is that it is banking on a U.S. security guarantee. However, Taiwanese legislators (and more than a few U.S. officials) would do well to take another look at the TRA, which some allege commits the United States to defend Taiwan’s autonomy.

The TRA merely asserts that “efforts to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, would be a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” Moreover, the TRA replaced an expiring mutual defense treaty (MDT) with Taiwan’s government, and a debate ensued around the enactment of the TRA as to whether it should replicate the MDT’s security guarantee. Proposals to incorporate such a guarantee were rejected.

To be sure, it is possible that the United States could decide to involve itself in a conflict between Taiwan and China. That decision would be ill-advised in its own right, given the potential dangers, but it certainly should not be left to Taiwan’s government to force such a momentous decision. However, given Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian’s penchant for provocations, combined with Taiwan’s dwindling defense capability, Taiwan is increasingly controlling the politics of the conflict without taking responsibility for the military consequences of its actions.

While it is unfortunate that the democracy on Taiwan faces a confrontation with communist China, Americans should certainly not take Taiwan’s security more seriously than do its own citizens. If they decide that social spending is more important than deterring a possible takeover attempt by the PRC, that is their decision. They should not be allowed to free ride on the expectation that the United States will save them in the event of a crisis.

The United States should continue, under the obligation of the TRA, to sell Taiwan defensive arms with which it can deter a Chinese attack. However, at the same time, Washington should indicate to Taiwan that it does not intend to involve itself in a war in the Taiwan Strait. As things stand now, the Taiwanese increasingly expect that the United States will defend them, and the Chinese increasingly suspect that it will not. That is the worst of both worlds, and portends a perilous situation for all parties involved.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He is the author or editor of 16 books on international relations, and author of The Coming War with China over Taiwan: Inevitable or Avoidable? (forthcoming, Palgrave). Justin Logan is a research assistant at the Cato Institute.