- Change and Continuity in U.S.-Taiwan Security Ties
The Taiwan Strait in 2019 is characterized by a combination of change and continuity. As it has for decades, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains focused on the goal of reunification. However, the growing strength of China's statements concerning Taiwan, along with the appearance of greater resolve among Chinese leaders that reunification is inevitable, is a notable change.1 On the opposite side of the strait, Taiwan is a vibrant democracy with a sizable economic and political presence in the region. The island is also an important U.S. partner. In Washington, attitudes toward both China and Taiwan have shifted. The U.S. national security community is attuned to the challenges of a "revisionist China" as described in recent key strategy documents, including the effects that Chinese actions may have on the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait.2 Perhaps unsurprisingly, adaptation and evolution in U.S.-Taiwan security ties are due in no small part to this shift in U.S. perceptions of China and regional challenges.
This essay seeks to make sense of the change and continuity in U.S.-Taiwan security ties. It begins with an assessment of how the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) has shaped relations in the security domain. It then turns to a discussion of three current trends in the U.S.-Taiwan defense relationship and what these trends may indicate for the future.
Re-examining the Foundation of U.S.-Taiwan Security Ties
For the last 40 years, the TRA has provided a solid foundation for the development of U.S.-Taiwan security and defense ties. It has offered [End Page 18] an enduring framework for relations that can be, and arguably has been, implemented flexibly in response to changing regional security dynamics.3 The TRA sets out several key stipulations. First, the stability and peace of the Taiwan Strait are identified as a U.S. interest. Any nonpeaceful efforts to determine the future of Taiwan are considered of "grave concern" to the United States and a threat to regional security. Second, the TRA identifies clear parameters to guide the development of the bilateral security relationship and states that it is U.S. policy to "provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character." More specifically, in the section on implementation, the TRA directs the U.S. government to "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" (secs. 2.25, 3.1).
The TRA also provides loose guidance for how the U.S. military may be involved in a Taiwan crisis or conflict. The United States is to maintain the capacity "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." It is not legally bound by the TRA to come to Taiwan's defense in times of crisis or conflict but rather to maintain the military capability to do so if directed by the president and Congress (secs. 2.26, 3.3). Similarly, assertions that the TRA in fact requires the United States sell arms to Taiwan exaggerate the text's legal meaning. When it comes to providing for Taiwan's defense and security, the TRA directs the United States to supply Taiwan with defense articles and services based on U.S. assessments of Taiwan's needs. The statute delegates to the president, Congress, and the Department of Defense the ability to determine what constitute defensive capabilities.
As Richard Bush has noted, the text of the TRA is a legislative commitment that must be backed up by political commitment.4 Changes in the strategic environment of the Taiwan Strait and the broader Indo-Pacific have led different U.S. administrations to interpret and implement the TRA differently. It is these shifts in implementation that provide insight to current trends in U.S.-Taiwan security ties. [End Page 19]
Trends in U.S.-Taiwan Security and Defense Ties
While U.S. engagement with Taiwan has traditionally received robust bipartisan support in Congress, the TRA...