Reagan’s Memo and its Prequel on Arms Sales to Taiwan

Reagan’s Memo and its Prequel on Arms Sales to Taiwan

Reagan’s Memo and its Prequel on Arms Sales to Taiwan

On August 30, 2019, as one of his final actions as the National Security Advisor, John Bolton declassified President Reagan’s secret memo dated August 17, 1982, to direct United States (US) policy in how to interpret the Communiqué issued with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the same day. That third US-PRC Communiqué concerned US arms sales to Taiwan. What was the context for Reagan’s memo as well as a vague note that he wrote earlier in 1982 to “keep our promises to Taiwan”—what I call the prequel? What are implications of these Presidential directives for US policy, Congressional oversight, and Taiwan?

Directing Policy on Arms Sales

In September 2019, the National Security Council (NSC) decided to release the declassified memo in full with Reagan’s signature and through the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). On August 17, 1982, Reagan signed the four-paragraph memo as a directive to Secretaries of State and Defense George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger. Reagan emphasized that any reduction in arms sales to Taiwan would be premised on peace in the Taiwan Strait and China’s declared “fundamental policy” of a peaceful resolution to the question of Taiwan. The President added that “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.” Finally, Reagan emphasized that “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.”

Actually, Reagan’s memo has been known for many years in the NSC and other parts of the US Government and outside, as I and others have discussed or provided the text. I included it in my CRS Report for Congress, which cited among other sources the authoritative Ambassador James Lilley. [1]

Nonetheless, through successive administrations, skeptics had questioned why the NSC could not produce the memo from its archives. The NSC’s release of this memo is overdue and puts the guidance in the unclassified, official record for Congress in its oversight and other actions. Moreover, this official, open directive for a “permanent imperative of US foreign policy” reinforces what I wrote about institutional compliance with the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). Despite Congress’ passage of the TRA in 1979, Reagan still considered it necessary to write the memo for the White House’s record to continue arms sales to Taiwan in response to China’s potential threat. The memo enables consistency in policy rather than Presidential whims affecting arms sales. Finally, the memo enhances strategic communication that counters China’s constant false narratives about the United States, Taiwan, and other countries. 

Countering China’s Blame on the US and Taiwan

China’s political warfare blames the United States and Taiwan, prompting corrections. Just before the memo’s declassification, China charged that the US sale of F-16V fighters violates the 1982 Communiqué. That document cited an intention of the United States to “reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution.” However, US arms sales have not violated any agreement. Moreover, the US statement was premised on China’s foregoing statement in that Communiqué, reiterating a “fundamental policy to strive for a peaceful solution to the Taiwan question.” Indeed, the PRC’s increasing military threat betrays its promise in that Communiqué. 

On September 18, 2019, the Republic of China (ROC) (Taiwan)’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu used Twitter to publicize the newly declassified memo. Wu commented that “it is China’s own responsibility to STOP the military threat against Taiwan.”

Taiwan’s official Central News Agency (CNA) asserted that Reagan’s memo has justified US arms sales despite the US-PRC Communiqué of August 1982. At the end of its news story, CNA cryptically cited a hand-written note dated March 1, 1982, from Reagan.

Intriguingly but vaguely mysterious, Reagan wrote a single, straight-forward sentence: “We keep our promises to Taiwan—period.” I submit that Reagan’s earlier note was the prequel to his memo of August 17, 1982. Reagan wrote directives for US officials to assure Taipei.

Nonetheless, decades later, China’s increasing threat to Taiwan raises an issue about how it can maintain a favorable military balance. A salient question is how Taiwan assures the United States about shifting to asymmetric warfare for new ways of self-defense. 

Understanding the Context for Reagan’s Memo and its Prequel

What was the context for Reagan to feel compelled to sign his memo as the directive to interpret the Communiqué? Reagan started by stating that he agreed to the issuance of the Communiqué “in which we express United States policy toward the matter of continuing arms sales to Taiwan.” Reagan likely discerned that internal policy debates were raging and would continue to rage about whether to sustain arms sales.

Indeed, Reagan proved to be prescient about limitations in arms sales. In a CRS Report for Congress about the annual arms sales process for Taiwan, I wrote about a period from the early 1980s to 2001, in which the Executive Branch used arms sales talks only once a year and contrived “buckets” of values of annual arms sales calculated to show reductions from year to year. In 1999, some Members of Congress introduced the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (not passed), criticizing that “pressures to delay, deny, and reduce arms sales to Taiwan have been prevalent since the signing of the August 17, 1982 Communiqué.” Starting in 2008, Congress raised concerns about Presidential “freezes” of arms sales in so-called “packages” to delay notifications to Congress.

According to Lilley, in the fall of 1981, Beijing started to pressure Washington for a new communiqué and a termination date for arms sales to Taipei. On one side were officials like Lilley, who knew Reagan’s strategic thinking and became the US representative in Taipei as the Director of AIT in January 1982. Lilley advocated for a balanced policy of strong relationships with both Beijing and Taipei to serve US interests in Asian stability and democratization. He countered against other officials whom he called “crusaders for the strategic relationship with China” at the Central Intelligence Agency and the Departments of Defense and State. By the spring of 1982, the State Department started to concede on arms sales despite the TRA. [2]

In this context, Lilley also played a part in the prequel of March 1, 1982. On the day before, a newspaper in Taiwan reported that Secretary of State Alexander Haig suggested that if China followed a peaceful policy toward Taiwan, then the United States could hold arms sales to levels below that of President Carter’s final year in office. On March 1, Taiwan’s government at the highest level sought clarification from AIT Director Lilley. He then asked Washington for assurances to answer Taipei’s leadership. The State Department’s message to Lilley (which included assurances about meeting Taiwan’s legitimate defense needs and sticking to the TRA) reached the Situation Room at the White House. As a result, Reagan wrote to National Security Advisor William Clark, “We keep our promises to Taiwan—period,” and signed “RR.” [3] When ROC (Taiwan) President Tsai Ing-wen stopped in Honolulu in March 2019, she viewed a photo exhibition at the East-West Center about the TRA that included a display about Reagan’s hand-written note (see display)

On July 14, 1982, a month before the third Communiqué, Lilley indirectly passed President Reagan’s Six Assurances (including no date to end arms sales) to President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) in Taipei. 

Why did Reagan sign his memo of August 17, 1982, along with issuing the Communiqué? Lilley recounted NSC aide Gaston Sigur’s explanation for Reagan’s reasoning: “The President felt that the communiqué hit him at the last minute. He didn’t like it, and his understanding of the communiqué was that if China were to become belligerent or build up power projection capability that brought insecurity or instability to the area, then the US would increase arms sales to Taiwan, regardless of what the communiqué said about quantity and quality conditions on arms sales.”

Continuing the Presidential Insistence on a Peaceful Resolution

President Reagan was consistent with President Nixon in countering China, continuing the US insistence on a peaceful resolution, and clarifying that the communiqués were not joint agreements. It can be somewhat misleading to cite the three US-PRC documents as “joint communiqués.” Indeed, in 1972, the United States did not even recognize the PRC but recognized the ROC in Taipei. 

As the President who issued the first US-PRC Communiqué on February 27, 1972, Nixon wrote right after the second Communiqué (on normalization) in 1979 to Chairman Lester Wolff of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs. Nixon pointed out that, “Dr. Kissinger and I had extensive discussions with Chairman Mao and Premier Chou En-lai on the Taiwan issue in 1972. We could not reach an agreement and consequently stated our positions separately in the Shanghai Communiqué. In that document, the US ‘reaffirmed’ its support of a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. I consider that to be an unequivocal moral commitment.”

Significantly, with salience for persistent policy debates, Nixon understood the strategic implication for US security interests beyond Taiwan. Nixon’s letter to Wolff also stressed that: “normalization of US relations with the PRC is indispensable in furthering our goal of building a structure of peace in Asia and the world. But at a time when US credibility as a dependable ally and friend is being questioned in a number of countries, it is also vitally important that the Taiwan issue be handled in a way which will reassure other nations—whether old friends, new friends, potential friends, or wavering friends—that it is safe to rely on America’s word and to be America’s friend.” As Wolff emphasizes Nixon’s point for current policy, “if the US abandons Taiwan, no ally will believe us.” [4]

The main point: Reagan’s memo and the prequel in his note continue to direct US policy and assure Taiwan. In turn, Taiwan remains obligated to give assurances about transforming its military for new asymmetric warfare to deter and defend against China’s growing threat. 

[1] James Lilley, China Hands (New York: Public Affairs, 2004); and author’s consultation with Lilley.

[2] James Lilley, China Hands (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).

[3] Author’s consultations, August-September 2019.

[4] Author’s consultations with Lester Wolff, including his letter from Nixon of February 14, 1979, and an in-person interview in September 2019.