Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

USG Declassifies Reagan Memo Clarifying US Policy Towards Taiwan

Only days after the Pacific Island country of Solomon Islands announced it was switching diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing—Taiwan is now down to 15 diplomatic partners—a secret memo that President Ronald Reagan had sent to then secretaries of state and defense about US policy towards Taiwan appeared on the website of the de facto US embassy in Taiwan (AIT)’s website. The declassified memo, dated August 17, 1982, was signed by Reagan and sent to Schultz and Weinberger. In it, the 40th president stated:

The US willingness to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan is conditioned absolutely upon the continued commitment of China to the peaceful solution of the Taiwan-PRC differences. It should be clearly understood that the linkage between these two matters is a permanent imperative of US 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.

While President Reagan ultimately agreed to sign the Third Communiqué of 1982 with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it was not without qualifications as he was seriously concerned about its potentially deleterious impact on Taiwan’s security. The existence of the secret memo was known by some but not many in the policy community. It had been covered in a number of books, articles, and reports, but the original copy in its entirety had eluded the public eye since it was classified until only recently. As documented by Asia specialist Shirley Kan in her seminal reports for the Congressional Research Service:

First publicly disclosed by James Mann, in About Face (Alfred Knopf, 1999). According to Mann, President Reagan’s secret memorandum (on the August 17, 1982, communiqué) clarified US policy as maintaining the military balance between the PRC and Taiwan. A version of the text, as provided by an unnamed former US official, was published in Robert Kaiser, “What We Said, What They Said, What’s Unsaid,” Washington Post, April 15, 2001. According to Alan Romberg’s Rein In at the Brink of the Precipice (Stimson Center, 2003), Charles Hill, then Executive Secretary of the State Department, confirmed that Secretary of State George Shultz was told by President Reagan that his intention was to solidify the stress on a peaceful resolution and the importance of maintaining the cross-Strait military balance for that objective. Reagan also intended his written clarification to reassure Republicans in Congress, such as Senator Jesse Helms, that Taiwan would not be disadvantaged by the communiqué. Partial text of the memo was published by James Lilley, in China Hands (Public Affairs, 2004). Also, author’s consultation with Lilley.

While serving as internal guidance for successive administrations, the influence of Reagan’s directives waned over time as China’s military, economic, and political rise affected US policy considerations. Indeed, what had led to a protracted practice of undue deference by Washington to Beijing’s sensitivities gradually eroded some of the original commitments made under the Taiwan Relations Act and President Reagan’s directives as well as assurances.

This creeping adjustment in how Washington met its commitments to Taiwan over time as prescribed by the Taiwan Relations Act and conditioned by other policy considerations were manifested, for instance, in how US arms sales to Taiwan had been “packaged” 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.

The significance of the memo’s declassification, which had been signed off by the former national security adviser, John Bolton, is that it shifts Reagan’s directives from an internal guidance to public policy. By releasing it into the public bloodstream, it inserts a degree of accountability on executive policy by ensuring that the guidance is publicly known by both American and Taiwanese people, but also to remind Beijing that these were, in unambiguous terms, the American intent. Now clearly and visibly in the public discourse, the memo qualifies and, in the process, clarifies the letter of the US position as it relates to the Third Communiqué’s place in US policy towards Taiwan.

In a recent testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary Stillwell stated:

The United States has an abiding interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. The United States has for decades maintained our support for Taiwan’s ability to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability and we will continue to support an effective deterrence capability for Taiwan. US arms sales to Taiwan are informed by the Taiwan Relations Act and based on continuing assessments of Taiwan’s defense needs.

All agreements entail reciprocal obligations and, by measures of Reagan’s now declassified guidance, Beijing has clearly not been holding up its side of the bargain. As clearly noted on numerous occasions by senior officials in the US government, the destabilizing actions caused by Beijing’s unrelenting pressure campaign on Taiwan is changing the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. This troubling situation has ostensibly prompted the United States to take steps to clarify its policy towards Taiwan. Perhaps more people have realized that ambiguous commitments could have emboldened Beijing to take these more offensive actions.

The main point: The declassification of the secret memo shifts Reagan’s directives from an internal guidance to public policy. The memo qualifies and, in the process, clarifies the letter and intent of the US position as it relates to the Third Communiqué’s place in US policy towards Taiwan.

Taiwan’s 2020 Legislative Race Heats Up

The focus for most political observers of Taiwan’s 2020 general elections has been on the field of potential candidates for the presidential race in the island democracy. While the presidential race is critical, there is also another important election happening at the same time on January 11, 2020: the country’s legislative elections. Held every four years, the 2016 election saw the Democratic Progressive Party (民主進步黨, DPP)—for the first time—wrestle a majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan from the Nationalist Party’s (中國國民黨, Kuomintang or KMT).

The race for the Legislative Yuan is significant because it will affect whether whoever is elected president will have the means to push through his or her policy agenda. The opposition will hope to ride the momentum from its sweeping victory in the November 2018 local elections and regain the majority that it lost in 2016. The DPP, which currently holds a majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan, will want to maintain the majority with the support of its main coalition partner.

The prospects for the DPP to retain its current electoral buffer has suffered some setbacks as its primary coalition partner, the New Power Party (時代力量, NPP)—which currently holds three seats—appears in disarray. The People’s First Party (親民黨, PFP)—which has traditionally been more aligned with the KMT—and also holds three seats, will likely want to maintain and if possible increase its share of seats. Interestingly, it has yet to decide whether to nominate a presidential candidate. Furthermore, the mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), recently established his own political party, the Taiwan’s People Party (台灣民眾黨, TPP) and is fielding candidates in the upcoming 2020 legislative race. The party just announced that it was nominating eight candidates for the legislative election under the slogan “Push the pan-blue and pan-green camps to the two sides and put the people in the middle.”

According to local media reports, the DPP has finished most of its nominations for the upcoming general elections. According to party insiders cited by UDN, the DPP’s central committee’s target is to hold more than half of the total number of seats in the Legislative Yuan—which means maintaining at least 57 seats. The DPP currently controls 68 seats. This also means that the party expects to lose 11 seats. Currently the largest opposition party, the Nationalist Party, holds only 35 seats out of a total of 113 seats; whereas the rest of the seats are held by smaller political parties. The KMT—buoyed by its success in the 2018 local elections—is bullish and its chairman reportedly aims to secure 60 seats in the upcoming legislative election. According to some political observers, this prospect may depend at least in part on whether the extraordinary “Han-wave” (韓流) that swept in the opposition in last year’s local elections can be replicated again in the upcoming general elections.

A recent UDN survey shed an interesting light on the voters’ shifting party preference—at least as it relates to the legislative race. According to this survey, 40 percent of respondents are considering to vote for candidates other than those from the two major political parties in the upcoming election, whereas 44 percent are planning to vote for candidates from the two major parties. The survey also revealed a stark generational difference in whether respondents would be more or less likely to vote for a third party candidate. According to the survey, 61 percent of respondents 40 years old and younger indicated that are considering to vote for a legislative candidate from a third party, whereas 50 percent of respondents 50 years and older would vote for a candidate from one of the two major political parties.

It is important to note, however, that the legislative elections do not run in a political vacuum. A review of past general elections since 1996—when Taiwan had its first direct presidential election—showed that the winner of the presidential race always carried his or her party to win at least a plurality of seats in the legislative elections. For instance, in 2000 and 2004, the DPP held a plurality of seats in the Legislative Yuan when President Chen Shui-bian won the elections and the KMT had the majority in 2008 and 2012 when President Ma Ying-jeou won the presidential elections. According to another recent UDN survey on voters support for the presidential candidates released on September 21, President Tsai is currently in the lead with a 45 percent support rating with Han Kuo-yu trailing behind at 33 percent. 

Given the apparent emphasis of this election on youths, one legislative race that may be worth watching closely is in Taipei City. In the third constituency of Zhongshan/Songshan District, the parties are pitting the top young Turks from their ranks. The incumbent office holder is the Kuomintang’s Wayne Chiang (蔣萬安, b. 1978)—the grandson of Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). Since the seventh session (it’s currently the ninth session), the district has been represented by a KMT legislator. In the race, the DPP is being represented by Enoch Wu (吳怡農, b. 1980). Wu graduated from Yale and worked in the Goldman Sachs Group. His father is a noted academic at Academia Sinica and his uncle is Wu Nai-ren (吳乃仁), a former secretary general of the DPP. In addition, the Taiwan People’s Party—Mayor Ko’s party—announced that Indonesian-born Kimyung Keng (何景榮, b. 1977), who is an assistant professor at Feng Chia University, will also run in the race. According to political observers, the structure of the constituency is more blue than green and the longer ground game of the KMT candidate probably gives Chiang the incumbent advantage.

The main point: The DPP is reportedly hoping to maintain at least 57 seats and the KMT is aiming for 60 in the upcoming general elections. The prospects for the DPP appear difficult given the disarray of coalition partners and the entry of Ko’s TPP. However, Han’s flagging popularity could also weigh down on the KMT’s electoral prospects in the legislative elections.