Russell Hsiao is the executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute and the editor-in-chief of the Global Taiwan Brief.
When President Ronald Reagan agreed to the Third Communique of 1982 with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), advisers around him observed that Reagan was seriously concerned about its potentially deleterious impact on Taiwan’s security. Therefore, while allowing the August 17 communiqué to go forward, Reagan placed a secret memorandum in the National Security Council files, which read:
The U.S. willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of Taiwan-PRC differences. It should be clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of U.S. foreign policy. In addition, it is essential that the quantity and quality of the arms provided Taiwan be conditioned entirely on the threat posed by the PRC. Both in quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained. [emphasis mine]
The staying power of Reagan’s foresight cannot be overstated. There are at least three critical elements of Reagan’s personal directive on US policy towards Taiwan that are highly relevant to US-Taiwan relations today. First, that China remain committed to a peaceful solution; second, that the threat posed by the PRC remain the sole condition for the quantity and quality of arms provided to Taiwan; and three, maintenance of Taiwan’s quantitative and qualitative edge over the PRC. After more than 35 years, the verdict on all three counts regarding whether the directive’s criteria governing reduced arms sales to Taiwan have been faithfully met and maintained by successive administrations is inconclusive at best. As China-scholar David Shambaugh noted in 2000: “While it makes sense to calculate Taiwan’s needs based on the dynamic and evolving capabilities of the PLA, this measure has not traditionally been the standard criteria for making such decisions.”
Indeed, despite Reagan’s directives, there has been a creeping adjustment in how Washington has fulfilled its defense commitments to Taiwan over time as spelled out under the Taiwan Relations Act, which states: “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.” Indeed, arms packages were seemingly “bundled” to minimize friction with the PRC and armaments that Taiwan’s armed forces determined that it needed for self-defense were denied by the United States because it would presumably be seen by Beijing as being too provocative.
Shambaugh further observed, as far back as in 2000, that “China is closing the gap in several key areas and Taiwan’s ‘window of invulnerability’ is gradually closing. If current trends continue, sometime in the second half of this decade the conventional force balance between the two will tip in China’s favor—unless the United States transfers massive amounts of high-tech weaponry to the island’s armed forces.
In 2002, the Department of Defense (DoD) began issuing the Annual Reports to Congress on China’s Military Power mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000. In the 2002 report, DoD noted that “China’s force modernization, weaponry, pilot training, tactics, and command and control are beginning to erode Taiwan’s qualitative edge.” In 2004, the DoD explicitly and affirmatively stated that “After close to 20 years of spectacular economic growth in China, Beijing’s diplomatic successes, and steady improvement in the PLA’s military capabilities, the cross-Strait balance of power is steadily shifting in China’s favor.” In the most recent report (2017), the DoD concluded that Taiwan’s defensive advantages are declining.
With clear warnings of a tilting military balance already evident nearly 20 years ago, why have the quantitative and qualitative terms of Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC been allowed to erode as it did? To be sure, the formula for a cross-Strait military balance of power is not a one-sided equation. The military balance cannot be dependent on an assessment of the capabilities of only one actor. While how much Taiwan spends on its defense is certainly a key factor that may be contributing to the imbalance, how much it spends must also depend on what the United States has been willing to sell to Taiwan for its defense.
In this special issue of the Global Taiwan Brief, we asked four noted defense experts with extensive experience in government at the Department of Defense, State Department, and industry to weigh in and reassess several critical decisions on arms sales and defense policy towards Taiwan that have contributed to the military imbalance that exists today. What were the circumstances and considerations that factored into those decisions? What were the consequences and do those decisions serve US interests now? Perhaps most importantly, what lessons may we learn from those consequential decisions so that we may avoid future mistakes and begin to restore the quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC?
The United States faced a very different competitor during the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Under the specter of that existential threat, China was seen as the lesser of two evils and as leverage in the détente against the Soviet Union. To be sure, it would be difficult to fault analysts for not having foreseen the threat that would emerge from the People’s Republic of China’s rapid economic and military growth. Yet, the reality of the current challenge could not be more evident. As Chairman of the Joint Chief General John Dunford predicted in September 2017: “I think China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” Reagan’s directives are more significant now than ever.
The main point: Despite Reagan’s clear directives in the NSC memo, there has been a gradual and creeping erosion in how Washington maintained Taiwan’s quantitative and qualitative edge over the PRC. As Chairman of the Joint Chief General John Dunford predicted in September 2017: “I think China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” Reagan’s directives are more significant now than ever.