Getting Taiwan policy right

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Article Highlights

  • The U.S. government has an obligation, a legal duty, to provide or sell Taiwan what it needs to defend itself.

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  • Neither Obama, nor previous White Houses for that matter, have followed the letter of the law in defending Taiwan

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  • Putting U.S. policy toward Taiwan back on the right and statutorily correct path should be a priority for any new administration.

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This post is part of an ongoing series preparing for the AEI/CNN/Heritage National Security & Foreign Policy GOP presidential debate on November 22.

"Neither the Obama administration, nor previous White Houses for that matter, have followed the letter of the law when it comes to Taiwan’s defenses." --Gary SchmittThe Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed in the spring of 1979 after the Carter administration had ended formal ties to the Republic of China in favor of the People’s Republic, succinctly states that “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.” There are no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts” in the law. The U.S. government has an obligation, a legal duty, to provide or sell Taiwan what it needs to defend itself. Yet, as the latest Pentagon report on China’s growing military power and other independent analyses indicate, the military balance (especially in the air and on the sea) across the Taiwan Strait has largely shifted in China’s favor. It appears that neither the Obama administration, nor previous White Houses for that matter, have followed the letter of the law when it comes to Taiwan’s defenses.

Similarly, the current government in Taiwan under President Ma has undertaken policies toward China intended to reduce tensions between his country and the mainland. They are policies that both Republicans and Democrats in the United States have long supported. Yet, to date, and for all its efforts, Taipei would be hard-pressed to say what significant, tangible benefit it has received from Washington in response to its efforts to ease relations. On important substantive issues, such as concluding a free trade agreement between the United States and Taiwan, help from the United States in creating more international diplomatic space for Taiwan, or (as noted above) providing sufficient military assistance, the response from Washington has been at best underwhelming.

Taiwan is a vibrant, young democracy, a major trading partner of the United States, and a critical designer and supplier of computer- and information-related technologies. Taiwan also sits astride a key geographical corridor whose loss to China (either by force of arms or through a process of “Finlandization”) would be a major blow to America’s own strategic position in the Asia-Pacific theater.

Putting U.S. policy toward Taiwan back on the right and statutorily correct path should be a priority for any new administration. China will undoubtedly complain but a failure to rebalance ties with Taiwan has longer-term consequences, not the least of which is a China that thinks it can call the shots in this key area of the world.

Gary Schmitt is the director of the Program on Advanced Strategic Studies at AEI and the director of AEI's Program on American Citizenship.

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