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Monthly Archives: November 2021

Proposal Regarding U.S. Policy Toward the Republic of China (Taiwan)

ROC Flag flying over Hsinchu Air Base

DECISION MEMORANDUM

[28 October 2021]

TO:             U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL

                     SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR NONPROLIFERATION POLICY

FROM:      Hannah Pitt 

SUBJECT: PROPOSAL REGARDING U.S. POLICY TOWARD THE REPUBLIC OF CHINA (TAIWAN) 

Issue:

What policy stance should the United States pursue regarding the U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan: continue the status quo; increase commitment to Taiwan; or non-opposition towards Taiwan in acquiring nuclear weapons and a step down of U.S. commitments?

American security commitments to Taiwan have faced significant challenges in recent years. The growing power of China presents a challenge to maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait. The current U.S. approach to keeping the peace between Taiwan and China is "dual deterrence," under which the United States has issued a combination of warnings and reassurances to Taiwan to prevent either party from changing the status quo. However, given the increased aggressiveness of China, particularly in its activity of military aircraft in Taiwanese airspace and naval movement near Taiwan, officials in Washington are forced to consider alternative approaches to Taiwanese security concerns.

Recommendation:

I recommend that the United States should continue the status quo. Maintaining the status quo provides a clear deterrent for both Taiwan and China. It also guarantees the continuation of the growing economic relationship between the two parties. If situations further deteriorate, I recommend that the U.S. gradually increase its military commitments to Taiwan. Though this option carries the possibility of provocation, increasing U.S. military presence in the Taiwan Strait would reassert U.S. strength. Additionally, this option is the most flexible, allowing the United States to decrease or increase its military presence when deemed necessary. I do not recommend that the U.S. withdraw from all commitments entirely, nor is it recommended that the U.S. take a non-opposition stance towards Taiwan acquiring a nuclear deterrent.

Attachment A: Options Analysis

Background

Taiwan has possessed an active nuclear program since 1949, and although its program has a military component, it remains a non-nuclear state. Historically Taiwan has relied on its alliance with the United States for protection. The Mutual Defense Treaty of 1954 served as the basis for U.S. intervention on behalf of Taiwan during two separate crises with the PRC. 

Beginning in the 1960s, the United States increased its commitment and relationship with the PRC. In combination with this change in foreign policy, the United States in 1969 began a withdrawal of its military presence in the Taiwan Strait. Post-withdrawal, U.S. intelligence officials suspected that Taiwan had military intentions for its nuclear program and concluded in 1976 that a formal demarche was necessary to convey the American position that it did not support Taiwan in acquiring nuclear weapons. The United States implemented a hard-lined nonproliferation policy by putting pressure on Taiwan to end its nuclear program or risk losing all U.S. support entirely. As a result, Taiwan put its ambitions on pause in April 1977. The Taiwan Relations act replaced the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1978-1979 and offered to sell conventional weapons to Taiwan but did not include a U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan in the case of an attack from China. The risk to Taiwan has assumed political, economic, and military character. After the United States military withdrawal from the Taiwan Strait in the 1970s, tensions decreased between Beijing and Taipei; however, the democratization of Taiwan in the 1990s and pursuit for Taiwanese independence led to Beijing responding with a slow buildup of its military capabilities. 

Overview of Options

1. Maintaining the Status Quo: Maintaining the status quo preserves American interests abroad, and diverting from it could come at political and financial costs. Current policy aims at (1) Do not give China reasons to coerce Taiwan (2) Do not give Taipei reasons to approach a declaration of formal independence. Although Taiwan is concerned about its security, current U.S. conventional arms transfers to Taiwan, in addition to the assurances within the Taiwan Relations Act, offer sufficient protection. 

2. Increase Commitment to Taiwan: Current arms deliveries are welcome but could prove insufficient. To persuade Beijing that it cannot use military force to achieve reunification with Taiwan, the U.S. can aid Taiwan in an array of defense capabilities, including anti-ship missiles, naval defensive mines, and short-range air defense. 

3. No Opposition to Taiwan Acquiring Nuclear Deterrent and Step Down from Commitments: Eliminating U.S. commitments to the defense and security of Taiwan because military intervention to preserve the de facto independence of the island has become too costly and too dangerous for the United States. Taiwan would have to improve its defense capabilities to deter an attack by China. In addition to a withdrawal of U.S. support, the U.S. would refrain from opposing Taiwanese development of its nuclear deterrent. A U.S. withdrawal of commitment to the island could give Taiwan the encouragement it needs to consider restarting its nuclear weapons program. 

Pro/Con Assessment

Option 1: Maintaining the Status Quo

Pros:

Maintaining the current U.S. relationship with China requires the U.S. to avoid taking actions that could provoke China into taking military action against Taiwan. China has publicly announced on several occasions that a change to the current U.S.-China relationship regarding Taiwan could be cause for invasion of Taiwan if the U.S. were to increase military presence in and around the island or if Taiwan were to acquire nuclear weapons. Although China has voiced opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, it has yet to launch a military strike. Overall the status quo has continued to prove successful in preventing dangerous escalation between the two parties. In addition, experts attribute the strong economic relationship between China and Taiwan to the safety umbrella created by the status quo. At the same time, PRC-Taiwan economic ties have served U.S. strategic interests.

Cons:

Maintaining the status quo allows for a continuation of the increasingly unbalanced power dynamic between China and Taiwan. China has continued to build up its military capabilities and increase economic and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan. U.S. responses to such actions had little effect on the PRC. Critics of the status quo also postulate that while the status quo may be a temporary short-term solution, it does not solve the cause of the military aggression, which is the division of Taiwan and China and future reunification.

Option 2: Increasing Military Commitment to Taiwan

Pros: 

The United States has the freedom and flexibility to take more robust deterrence steps in case of further escalation by China. Increased military commitment could potentially renew Taiwanese confidence in U.S. commitment to its defense and security. The unequal balance of power between China and Taiwan would shift in favor of Taiwan by sending a clear signal to China that the U.S. has a military advantage over the PLA and will aid Taiwan in a crisis, thus acting as a non-nuclear deterrent. 

Cons:

The United States could potentially see a reduction in arms sales with Taiwan if U.S. support and intervention carry no preconditions or caveats. The United States needs to walk a fine line in how much it supports the Taiwanese military to maintain favorable opinions among the American public.

Option 3: Non-Opposition to Taiwan Acquiring and Nuclear Deterrent and a Step Down of U.S. Commitments

Pros:

A complete renunciation of U.S. commitment to Taiwan would decrease the costs and danger to the U.S. if it were to ever come to the aid of Taiwan in a crisis. A reduction of U.S. commitments, including a reduction in arms sales, could have little effect on Chinese interest in attacking Taiwan because U.S. weaponry does not offset its military advantages. A non-opposition stance towards Taiwan acquiring its independent nuclear deterrent allows Taiwan to enhance its security.

Cons: 

States facing regional existential threats may also demand similar rights and treatment concerning non-opposition of acquiring nuclear weapons deterrents. A withdrawal of U.S. support could also result in increased pressure and provocation by China.