SERIES: Taiwan-U.S. Quarterly Analysis | Number 2 of 21 « Previous | Next »

The United States and Taiwan’s Defense Transformation

Editor's Note: In the second installment of the Taiwan-U.S. Quarterly Analysis, former CNAPS Visiting Fellow Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang describes the long-term nature of the U.S.-ROC security relationship. Dr. Huang describes how the relationship, which has weathered strategic changes over the past 70 years and up to the present, plays important roles both in Taiwan’s defense transformation and in U.S. strategy in East Asia.

In light of the rise of Chinese economic and military might and the increasing importance of U.S.-China cooperation in global affairs, Taiwan may be seen as a small island too close to the Chinese continent. It may appear to carry little weight on the grand chess board of great powers. But it is a beacon for a future democratic China, and it is also a critical piece in the security structure of the Asia-Pacific region. Despite its relatively small size, Taiwan is worthy of protecting and must be defended.

The United States has long been a guarantor of Taiwan’s security, and will continue to play a pivotal role in Taiwan’s defense transformation in the 21st century.

A long-standing security partnership

The security relationship between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the United States is built on a strong foundation with a long history reaching back as early as World War II. The American Volunteer Group (the celebrated Flying Tigers) led by General Claire Chennault, the U.S. Naval Group China (Sino-American Cooperative Organization, SACO) led by Admiral Milton Miles, and the cooperation in land operations between Chinese, British and American forces in South Asia against the Japanese in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater in the early 1940s are the most famous and commemorative episodes of cooperation between the two countries.

Sixty years later, when the Service Coordination Division (the defense attaché’s office) in the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Taipei Office combined the “CBI patch” and the “flying tiger” graphic as its logo, the heritage of U.S.-ROC security cooperation was seen as revived and consolidated, and the long lasting military-to-military relationship between Taiwan and the U.S. was given a new spirit.

In addition to the historical linkage that extends from the Second World War, U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation has been built upon a convergence of strategic interests: namely, in containing Communist expansion in the Asia-Pacific during the Cold War era. The signing of the U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty in late 1954, and the establishment earlier that decade of the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) in Taipei not only assured the security and continuity of the ROC government in Taiwan, but also enabled a more complete network of military alliances between the U.S. and Asian-Pacific democracies.

Under the mutual defense treaty, which remained in effect until January 1, 1980, the depth and width of cooperative arrangements greatly assisted the Taiwan military in its paths toward modernization. In addition to supplies of advanced weapons systems, the U.S. provided Taiwan with considerable software support, from opportunities to study in American staff and war colleges to doctrinal reform through joint training and exercises.

The Taiwan Relations Act & Six Assurances

Washington’s decision to begin to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China, President Richard Nixon’s visit to Beijing, and the joint communiqué in Shanghai in 1972 greatly changed the strategic equation in Asia-Pacific, and undermined the diplomatic relationship between Washington and Taipei. Although military-to-military cooperation continued in the 1970s, the magnitude and depth of the relationship gradually deteriorated. The Carter administration formalized diplomatic relations with the PRC in January 1979, the U.S.-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty terminated one year later, and the security relationship between the United States and Taiwan consequently turned into a unique – and unofficial – one.

The U.S.-Taiwan security relationship found its new legal base when the U.S. Congress passed a domestic law – Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) – governing U.S.-Taiwan relations after 1979. According to the TRA, the U.S. would “consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United 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.”[1]

The latter clause expresses the strong commitment of the United States to sell arms to Taiwan to enable it to defend itself. But to Beijing, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan were (and remain) an important unresolved issue that made the U.S.-PRC diplomatic relationship somewhat incomplete. The U.S. government was pressured by China to address this issue, which led to the signing of the August 17 Communiqué in 1982. The communiqué cites earlier statements of the Chinese government declaring its “fundamental policy of striving for peaceful reunification of the motherland.” The U.S. government stated that, “having in mind” China’s policy of peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue and its own respect for China’s territorial integrity, it “does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends to reduce gradually its sales of arms to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution.”[2] Fortunately for Taiwan, nearly one month before the 1982 Communiqué was signed the Reagan administration quietly provided Taipei with “Six Assurances,” in which Washington guaranteed, among other promises, that it would not set a date for termination of arms sales to the Republic of China,” and “would not consult with the PRC in advance before making decisions about U.S. arms sales to the Republic of China.”[3]

The Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances therefore provided Washington and Taiwan with profound bases on which to sustain their bilateral security relationship after the diplomatic and alliance relations were terminated. Though the U.S. government has continued its security assistance to Taiwan through a network of non-official arrangements, the essence and quality of the relationship did suffer a significant setback. Taiwan’s military has since experienced great isolation, and suffered not only in terms of policy dialogues and consultations, but also in terms of exchanges necessary for the advancement of military thinking and knowledge. The security relationship was in a general sense confined only to the areas of defense procurement. From early the 1980s to mid-1990s, the annual Hwa-Mei Arms Sales Talks became the most important – and possibly the only – occasion for senior military exchanges.

Transformation after crisis

The relationship received a boost in the mid-1990s, in the wake of the 1996 missile crisis in the Taiwan Strait which also initiated Taiwan’s current defense reform and transformation. In the same period, the U.S.-Taiwan security assistance and cooperation has been upgraded to an unprecedented level. In 1997, Taiwan carried out the “Jing-Shi” force streamlining and defense reorganization program; and in the same year, the first “Monterey Talks” – an institutionalized senior-level strategic security dialogue – were held in California.

Taiwan’s defense transformation since 1997 originated from a combination of three developments: emerging new organizational and operational concepts in military affairs; the growing imbalance of military strength across the Taiwan Strait; and democratization in Taiwan domestic politics. The objective of Taiwan’s defense transformation is to dissuade a possible Chinese use of force, and so to prevent an armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait, through maintaining adequate and affordable armed forces and sustainable defense capability.

Taiwan’s defense transformation, of course, has been based on its own assessment of its strategic environment and defense modernization planning. But it also has been closely associated with U.S. security strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, and there are at least nine specific areas of U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation that are distinct from the years before the 1996 missile crisis. These new developments reflect a combination of Washington’s extended strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific, Taipei’s quest for defense modernization and balance in the Taiwan Strait, and, probably more importantly, the shared concerns over China’s growing military power. The nine areas are:

1. High-level Visits: Taiwan’s defense ministers and deputy ministers have been able to pay visits to the U.S. through the venue of annual Defense Industry Conference and other senior-level meetings.

2. Defense Reorganization: With the encouragement of the U.S., two national defense laws passed in 2000 – National Defense Act & Ministry of National Defense Organization Act – reflected Taiwan’s efforts to reorganize its defense institutions to better communicate and cooperate with their U.S. counterparts.

3. Strategic-Level: Monterey Talks: Beginning in late 1997, the annual strategic-level dialogues have enabled senior national security staff to share their threat perceptions and defense planning concepts in a full-spectrum dialogue.

4. Policy-Level: Defense Review Talks: Dialogues between Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense and the Pentagon are no longer limited to debates on military procurement items, but focus more on the policy and planning issues.

5. Professional-Level Exchanges: U.S. Department of Defense assessment teams have been sent to Taiwan to review defense requirements and key operational capabilities. Professional military education and exchanges has been expanded from National Defense University in Washington, DC to the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

6. Exercise Observations: The U.S. has sent retired and active duty observers to Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang Joint Operations Exercise, in which senior defense leaders verify doctrinal changes, examine operational concepts, and evaluate warfighting performance.

7. Military Liaison: Taiwan created the defense attaché position to head its military mission to the U.S. in 1997. The U.S. decision in 2005 to send its own active duty officers to the American Institute in Taiwan can be regarded as a new trend of normalization of security relationship between Taiwan and the U.S.

8. Arms Sales Procedures: The Bush administration in 2001 changed the way that arms sales decisions had been made since the termination of the U.S.-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty. Going forward, arms sales decision would not be confined to an annual review of Taiwan’s requests through the Hwa-Mei Arms Sales Talks, and for arms sales purposes Taipei was granted the status of a normal ally, for whom arms sales requests and approval can be managed whenever necessary.

9. Arms Sales Packages: The Bush administration also approved a robust arms sales package for Taiwan, including Kidd-class destroyers, Patriot missile defense systems, maritime reconnaissance airplanes and diesel submarines. Although some of the items are yet to be delivered, arms sales continue to be the most obvious symbol of the U.S. security commitment to Taiwan.

All of the above-mentioned security cooperation between Taiwan and the United States has played a vital role in facilitating Taiwan’s defense reform in the past decade. The most recent arms sales notifications to the Congress on January 29, 2010, with items including utility helicopters, ballistic missile defense systems and mine sweeping ships, might be seen as the completion of a security cooperation agenda set by the Clinton and the Bush administrations. However, more difficult challenge lies ahead for a new phase of Taiwan defense transformation.

Paradigm shift & new challenges

The upgrade of the U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation in the past decade has been a response to the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army. Today, ironically, the relationship experiences great challenges due to the same trend. The rise of China’s economic and military power has fundamentally changed the global power balance and brought about the re-assessment of strategic posture in the Asia-Pacific region.

Consequently, Taiwan’s defense transformation in the coming years will be deeply affected by two general developments: the Obama administration’s management of U.S.-China relations and the evolving cross-strait relationship between Taipei and Beijing.

The Obama administration came into office at a time when the American economy was experiencing a significant downturn, when the American image and popularity in the world were suffering, and when American influence in international politics was (and still is) challenged by other powers. In his speech at the United Nations in September 2009, President Obama stated: “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation… no nation should be forced to accept the tyranny of another nation...”[4] The December 14, 2009 issue of Newsweek characterized Obama as the “Post-Imperial President”; the sharp difference of Obama’s foreign policy concept from that of the Bush administration testifies that a doctrinal shift in U.S. foreign policy is taking place.

Short of an official national security strategy document and based on his various public statements around the world, President Obama’s foreign policy guidelines can be generally summarized as “multilateralism” and “cooperation.” But one would worry: If multilateralism is to be seen as giving away leadership, and if cooperation gives other powers opportunities to contend against Washington, what defines the Obama Doctrine?

Due to the rapid rise of China’s global influence, or maybe because China is now the largest creditor of the United States, Beijing’s attitude toward Washington has also changed. President Hu Jintao’s repetitive reminders that the U.S. must observe China’s “core interests,” i.e. sovereignty and territorial integrity; Premier Wen Jiabao’s manipulating tactics in the summit meetings in Copenhagen; and the unprecedented public threats made by Chinese generals against U.S. arms sales to Taiwan all have shown a more belligerent Chinese behavior in the U.S.-China relations.

How the United States government defines and manages its relations with China will have a direct impact on the scope of future military-to-military relations between Taiwan and the United States, as well as on the momentum of Taiwan’s defense transformation.

The shift in the U.S.-China strategic equation comes at a time when relations across the Taiwan Strait have gained positive ground after nearly a decade of tension and distrust. Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou has adopted a new policy of rapprochement based on the “1992 consensus” in which both Taipei and Beijing accept the notion of “one China” but agree to disagree on the interpretation of that term. On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, President Hu Jintao stated that Beijing will do whatever necessary to improve the relationship and to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwan people.

Since mid-2008, Taiwan and China have reached 12 agreements and 1 joint statement in four rounds of bilateral negotiations. The new détente in cross-strait relations has brought a significant relaxation of tension in the Taiwan Strait. This relaxation has presented Taiwan’s military with both opportunity and danger. It provides the military with a long-awaited window to focus on full-range transformation with much less pressure on military alertness. However, the relaxation has in a way mitigated the Taiwan public’s vigilance regarding existing Chinese military threats and the growing imbalance of military capability in Beijing’s favor. Rapprochement has also softened domestic support for defense modernization. Many in Taiwan advocate a “peace dividend” and further reduction of defense spending; others believe that the possibility of war between China and Taiwan is either too remote or too horrible to be contemplated.

The increase of Chinese global influence and the new adaptive and cooperative approaches to China taken up by both Washington and Taipei may reflect the beginning of paradigm shift from the past or they may simply be tactical adjustments. But these changes will definitely affect the future of defense transformation in Taiwan. 

Innovative security cooperation

The current defense reform undertaking in Taiwan is crucial to enable the ROC armed forces to acquire necessary capability for new missions in the 21st century. Its success will not only defend Taiwan’s democracy but also common security interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

In his first major address to senior military leaders, in October 2008 President Ma promised that there would be no military conflict across the Taiwan Strait under his presidency, and asked the Ministry of National Defense to shape a “new and effective” strategy for defending Taiwan.[5] However, the next phase of defense transformation would face even greater challenges, as the Taiwan military must:

  • Develop new asymmetric warfighting capabilities to deal with the growing military imbalance across the strait;
  • Fight for continued U.S. arms sales in light of the warming Washington-Beijing relationship;
  • Maintain pride and discipline in a social condition of less appreciation of strong armed forces;
  • Increase new roles and capabilities in disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions;
  • Keep up with regular training and exercises under growing national debts and financial difficulty;
  • Continue force streamlining while retaining capable personnel and maintaining high morale; and more importantly,
  • Manage a smooth transition from a conscript military service to a new all-volunteer force.

All of these challenges require considerable degrees of cooperation with and assistance from the United States, and how both Washington and Taipei innovatively advance their security relationship would have significant impact upon not only the success of Taiwan’s defense transformation and the sustainability of its warfighting capability, but also the U.S. strategic posture and security commitment in the Asia-Pacific region.

In November 2009 address to the senior officer corps, President Ma Ying-jeou urged the Ministry of National Defense to “apply the concepts of innovation and asymmetry in defense modernization.”[6] Ma’s remarks paralleled the concepts raised by U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Wallace “Chip” Gregson in his speech in the 2009 Defense Industry Conference. More interestingly, the Center for a New American Security issued a policy brief in December 2009, recommending that Taiwan and the U.S. to “establish a joint analysis group” to discuss asymmetric capabilities and new doctrines.[7]

Based on a more than half-century security relationship and closer cooperation in the past decade, it is imperative that Taiwan and Washington work together to find new and innovative approaches to Taiwan’s defense transformation in dealing with the mixture of cross-strait rapprochement and Chinese military expansion, and in coping with future transnational and non-traditional security threats together.

Taiwan is no Finland, nor Hong Kong, but a democracy centrally located between Yokosuka and Cam Ranh Bay, and between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Strait of Malacca. Security in the Taiwan Strait is not an issue of bilateral rivalry between China and Taiwan but an essential part of regional peace.

The rise of Chinese influence may empower the leaders in Beijing to be more assertive in their conduct of foreign policy, but only successful defense transformation in Taiwan, through continued U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation, will ensure the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait and in the much wider Asia-Pacific region.


[1] “Taiwan Relations Act: Public Law 96-8, 96th Congress,” January 1, 1979, full text available on the website of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), http://www.ait.org.tw/en/about_ait/tra/; accessed February 8, 2010.

[2] “Joint Communiqué of the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China,” August 17, 1982, full text available on the website of the American Institute in Taiwan, http://www.ait.org.tw/en/keydocs/joint_communique_1982.aspx; accessed February 8, 2010

[3] According to Harvey Feldman, then-director of AIT James Lilley delivered the Six Assurances orally to ROC President Chiang Ching-kuo. See Harvey Feldman, “President Reagan’s Six Assurances to Taiwan and Their Meaning Today,” The Heritage Foundation Web Memo, October 2, 2007, https://www.policyarchive.org/bitstream/handle/10207/13096/wm_1653.pdf?sequence=1; accessed February 8, 2010.

[4] “Remarks by the President to the United Nations General Assembly,” The White House Office of the Press Secretary, September 23, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/remarks-by-the-president-to-the-united-nations-general-assembly/; accessed February 8, 2010.

[5] Highlights of the speech can be found at the official website of the Office of the President, ROC: “Zongtong canjia guojun 97 nian zhongyao ganbu yanxihui,” http://www.president.gov.tw/php-bin/prez/shownews.php4?Rid=14588; accessed February 15, 2010.

[6] Taiwan’s Military News Agency (junshi xinwen tongxunshe 軍事新聞通訊社), carried the full text of President Ma’s speech immediately after it was delivered on November 25, 2009 at http://tw.news.yahoo.com/article/url/d/a/091125/60/1vo1u.html; accessed December 28, 2009.

[7] Abraham M. Denmark and Richard Fontaine, “Taiwan’s Gamble: The Cross-Strait Rapprochement and its Implications for U.S. Policy,” Center for a New American Security Policy Brief, December 2009, http://www.cnas.org/files/documents/publications/Taiwan_Denmark_Dec2009_code502_policybrief2.pdf; accessed February 8, 2010.

SERIES: Taiwan-U.S. Quarterly Analysis | Number 2