After two decades of neglect, Washington is finally taking the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) threat of force against Taiwan seriously. While military re-posturing to stop China from taking Taiwan is a positive development, most of the ideas for a stronger deterrent are operational and tactical in nature when political and strategic adjustments are needed. The PRC made the political decision to abrogate its commitment under the One China Policy by refusing to renounce the use of force. It regularly uses its military to bend Taipei to its will. This deserves a strategic response: specifically, an elevation of the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship.
The essence of the One China Policy is a straightforward deal by Washington and Beijing. In 1979, the United States agreed to renounce its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, abrogate its military treaty with the Republic of China (ROC), and pull its troops off the island. In exchange, China committed to a peaceful resolution of its disputes with the ROC. This paved the way for the normalization of Sino-American relations.
These U.S. concessions were so shocking back at home that the U.S. Congress rose up in protest and legislated an unofficial diplomatic relationship and strong defense commitment with the island called the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). When Beijing was weaker and seemingly committed to a peaceful resolution, the TRA provided a workable political framework for U.S.-Taiwan relations. Washington and Taipei developed strong ties which fell below the threshold of diplomatic recognition. It is also the legal and political basis for selling weapons to Taiwan to help the island oppose Chinese coercion or use of force. Even with this arrangement, Washington has held up its side of the bargain, forgoing official ties with Taiwan and severely restricting the bilateral defense relationship.
In contrast, the PRC has shredded its side of the deal. The Chinese Communist Party has modernized its military to coerce, blockade, invade, and occupy the island. It engages in massive air incursions, cyberattacks, and intimidating exercises to shake the will of the Taiwan people and cause splits in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. It repeatedly threatens to use force if Taiwan does not meet its political demands, most explicitly in its anti-secession law of 2005 and President Xi Jinping’s speech in 2019.
The good news is that the U.S. military is shifting to make the defense of Taiwan its main mission, and Congress is on board. The bad news is that even as the stakes increase and the chances of the United States and Taiwan fighting a war with China rise, the bilateral military relationship is still very limited. The outdated political framework for such relations is still in place. This causes unneeded frustration and friction between Washington and Taipei, which is a gift to Beijing’s propaganda outlets.
The current strategic framework does not permit the United States and Taiwan to adequately prepare to fend off the China threat. Alliance management is one of the toughest tasks in foreign policy. It is the work of presidential summits, bilateral meetings of secretaries of state and defense with their counterparts, systemic high-level military engagements, and routine combined programs of training and exercises to align allied strategies and force postures. Coalition-based deterrence is as much psychological as physical. Two very different militaries from very different political and cultural contexts prepare to fight together. It is an emotional process, as each part of an alliance comes to suspect the motives, will, and capabilities of the other. The weaker party is always afraid of abandonment, while the stronger is always critical of its smaller partner’s contribution. The process must be managed at the highest levels of politics and the military. Consider that the great wartime hero, General Dwight Eisenhower, was foremost an alliance manager: smoothing over the different goals, timelines, pressures and political demands of World War II’s allied nations. Should China ever start a war, an allied response would be as difficult to manage as every other major war the United States has fought.
Yet alliance management between the United States and Taiwan is stultified and ad hoc. Top U.S. national security leaders do not speak to their counterparts about deterrence and defense. There is a negligible U.S. military presence in Taiwan and no systematic program of training and exercise. The two militaries hardly know each other.
To be sure, in recent years, managers of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship have elevated the level of strategic discussion and provided some opportunity for Taiwan to train with the United States. But such intermittent elevation is inadequate to the challenge. There is no structured mechanism at the highest levels to forge common threat perceptions, common political objectives, or common ideas about escalation. Yet even among Taiwan’s best friends in Washington, the temptation to blame Taiwan for not having the “right” strategy or creating the “right” forces is high.
America is increasingly demanding that Taiwan have a certain kind of military, one that fits into the United States’ own emerging concepts of how it would fight China. But these American plans and strategic concepts are not shared with Taiwan in any systematic fashion. Taiwan cannot even be sure that the United States will fight alongside it. Given differences in size, geography, and proximity to China, U.S.-Taiwan threat perceptions are dissimilar. For example, the United States may view an invasion of the island as the most likely Chinese warfare strategy, but China itself has at least five different kinds of war plans. Taiwan has a different view of what is urgent.
Moreover, the democratically elected president of a nation cannot forgo weapons systems such as fighter aircraft that reassure their citizens during peacetime. No government would tolerate incursions into its airspace without a response. Yet Washington has been critical of Taiwan’s acquisition of such “non-asymmetrical” platforms because they would not survive a war with China. For Taiwan, the distinctions are less clear between Chinese behavior in war and peace.
Another problem with the current U.S. approach is that the United States has been wrong in the past when it tried to dictate force structure to Taiwan absent a strategic framework. For example, U.S. policy used to oppose Taiwan’s building of cruise missiles. Now America is thankful that it has such a program. The bottom line is that no U.S. ally will ever have the force structure that America wants. Even so, the United States has been relatively good at managing alliance differences when policymakers had the right tools. In the Cold War, spats with France over deterring the Soviets were notoriously bitter, yet the alliance held. More recently, it took years for the highest levels of the U.S. government advocating for Japan to reinterpret its pacifist laws and deploy missile defenses. The United States cannot expect big changes in Taiwan’s force posture absent a strategic framework that allows political and diplomatic leaders to talk and militaries to train together. Raising the pressure on Taipei absent an alliance structure to hash out differences will fail. The United States is committed to the defense of Taiwan because of its self-interest, which creates natural limits on its leverage.
A change in the strategic framework for U.S.-Taiwan military relations may sound provocative. It is certainly risky given how the PRC has dominated the narrative about what the One China Policy means. But the United States is well within its rights to better prepare with Taiwan now that China reneged on its commitments. And this approach is certainly less risky than waiting for war to get to know the ROC armed forces or getting into a big public spat with Taiwan over disputes that are common among allies. China’s abrogation of the One China Policy is an unfortunate development. But it opens up an opportunity to work with Taiwan to better deter war.
Dan Blumenthal is director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and was in charge of China-Taiwan policy at the Office of Secretary of Defense from 2002-2004.