In lieu of formal state-to-state relations with Taiwan, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of the U.S. Congress has for forty years provided a flexible framework for the United States to sustain economic, political, and military relations with one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies.
Taiwan is a valuable democratic partner that was a Mutual Defense Treaty ally until the end of 1978, and the TRA is not an alliance. But under the TRA’s aegis, the United States can pursue its interest in Taiwan having the military capabilities needed to deter attack from Communist China.
While China demanded that the United States end its formal relations with Taiwan in order to have normal relations with Beijing, the TRA makes clear that the U.S. decision to establish diplomatic relations with China “rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.”
Under the previous Mutual Defense Treaty, the United States at times had to come to Taiwan’s aid. In 1958, during a Taiwan Strait crisis which included massive artillery shelling and aerial combat, the U.S. Air Force briefly deployed 20 kiloton nuclear warhead armed MGM-1 Matador cruise missiles to Taiwan.
Back then, nuclear deterrence worked and China did not invade. This incident confirmed Nikita Khrushchev’s fears that Mao Zedong could drag the Soviet Union into a nuclear war, and thus sped the dissolution of the first Sino-Soviet alliance in 1960. American nuclear cruise missiles were withdrawn from Taiwan by 1962.
Since 1979, successive U.S. administrations have sought to use the TRA to arm Taiwan to deter Chinese attack, but some have also sought to limit Taiwan’s military capabilities to avoid provoking Beijing.
The Carter and Reagan administrations did not sell Taiwan advanced fighters, especially eschewing the 4th generation Lockheed-Martin F-16. George H.W. Bush decided to do just that in 1992, in part responding to China’s purchase of Russian 4th generation Su-27 fighters.
No U.S. President has sold Taiwan what the State Department would consider “offensive” weapons, like long-range land-attack missiles.
But after 40 years the TRA framework is facing its greatest challenge, not from Taiwan, which has managed a full transition to democracy, but from China which is again nearly able to invade the island as its first conquest on the way to global hegemony.
Analysts now speculate that China could be planning to actually invade Taiwan by the early to mid-2020s.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has the means to invade Taiwan, and is implementing reforms aiming to increase modern joint force capabilities. For almost two years the PLA has conducted threatening military exercises around Taiwan, both to intimidate the people of Taiwan and the region, and to train its own forces for war.
Furthermore, the PLA’s space attack, missile, air, and naval forces are now designed to defeat U.S. forces coming to Taiwan’s aid. Developing China-Russia military cooperation could include Russian military assistance to help China win on the Taiwan Strait.
To meet this challenge, both the Obama and the Trump administrations have successfully urged Taiwan to adopt a new counter-invasion strategy which stresses “asymmetric” responses to exploit the weaknesses of China’s invasion strategy.
Reflecting the gravity of the Chinese threat, the Trump administration recently has also reintroduced nuclear signaling.
On Feb. 26, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard testimony from the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) Commander General John Hyten, the military commander of U.S. nuclear forces. In his testimony, General Hyten listed Taiwan among the countries from which his command had met “senior leaders,” as part of USSTRATCOM’s effort to assure “allies and partners.”
General Hyten did not say who was met from Taiwan or what was discussed, and such a meeting does not imply any U.S. commitment. However, it does convey a clear signal to China: The United States has the option to use all of its military capabilities, including its nuclear weapons, to deter a Chinese attack against Taiwan.
Washington must now act to make such gestures more credible. In 2010, President Barack Obama destroyed the last possible U.S. nuclear-armed theater range missile, a nuclear-armed version of the Tomahawk cruise missile the U.S. Navy was keeping in storage.
In much-needed contrast, President Trump is now strengthening nuclear deterrence. He dumped the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty which Russia was violating and he has put the United States back in the missile business.
The U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and the U.S. Army are currently working on respective new theater-range ballistic and cruise missile programs, some of which could be nuclear-armed. In three-to-five years, China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran may be thinking more carefully about possible aggression.
But there is also much work for Taiwan. It must continue to increase its defense spending, and to prepare for real war by building ammunition stocks and exercising its 1.2 million army reserves. Washington should also update old policies so as to help Taiwan and other allies develop long-range land attack missiles.
So far this year, China has rejected suggestions from President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that it join a new INF Treaty. Perhaps when Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have long-range missiles capable of sinking Chinese invasion forces, Beijing will reconsider.
Until then, President Trump’s path holds the best chance for preserving peace in Asia and securing American interests codified in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.
Rick Fisher is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center and this piece is based on an article published previously by the Geostrategy-Direct newsletter.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.