Skip to main content
On the Record

The United States and Taiwan

This is a very big subject with a complicated past, a complex present, and an uncertain future. Perhaps the most useful service I can offer is to provide you an inventory of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship on a variety of dimensions: values, politics, economics, security, and so on. Through this exercise I come to several elementary conclusions. The first is that Taiwan is closer to the United States on some dimensions than others. Second, there has been a significant evolution in these relationships. For example, Taiwan was at serious odds with the United States concerning political values from the 1950s to the 1980s but with the remarkable democratization on the island over the last fifteen years it is now closely aligned. Third, because the international system is constantly changing both Washington and Taipei must work to ensure that alignments will continue to be close in the future and not diverge. And fourth, although Taiwan enjoys strong support in the United States, there are things that it can do to strengthen itself and thereby fortify the bilateral relationship.

International Security

Let me start with security, which is the foundation of the global order. And as the world’s strongest power since World War II, the United States laid that foundation and has taken the lead to preserve and promote international peace and security. All other countries have had to adjust to the reality of U.S. leadership.

The United States’ approach to security in East Asia and to Taiwan’s place in it evolved over time. At the time that Chiang Kai-shek’s forces were defeated on the mainland, Washington understood that the loss of Taiwan to the People’s Liberation Army would hurt U.S. interests but it chose not to oppose that outcome. It did so partly because it lacked the resources to defend Taiwan and because it believed that some day China would split with the Soviet Union and it did not want to discourage that shift. Then the Korean War began and the U.S. definition of its strategic interests changed. In order to block the spread of communism in Asia it progressively built up a containment structure and Taiwan became part of that structure. That approach to the global security order lasted until the 1970s, when, in order better to contain the Soviet Union, the Nixon and Carter Administrations decided to align with China. In the process the United States had to make concessions concerning Taiwan and Taiwan no longer had a role in American strategic architecture. The Taiwan Relations Act, however, authorized the continuation of arms sales and stated a continuing concern for Taiwan’s security.

Author

Get daily updates from Brookings