Taiwan’s Defense, Diplomacy and Dialogue

Ching-chih Chen

A crisis in the Taiwan Strait has been evolving since July 9 when Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui stated in an interview with a German radio station that the relationship between Taiwan and China is one of "state-to-state, or at least special state-to-state." Beijing has interpreted Lee’s remark as a move toward formally declaring the independence of Taiwan. Three years ago in an attempt to discredit Lee Teng-hui and influence the outcome of Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in March 1996, Beijing launched a series of large-scale military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and fired missiles near Taiwan. China’s belligerence threatened peace and stability of East Asia and ultimately compelled the US to dispatch two aircraft carrier battle groups into the area of the Taiwan Strait. The US naval move worked to end China’s military intimidation of Taiwan. In the current crisis, China has once again threatened to take military action against Taiwan. Most military analysts, however, do not think that China will really resort to the use of force.1 They believe that Beijing is actually focusing on its psychological warfare designed to scare Taiwan into backing down from its "two states/countries" position which contradicts Beijing’s "one China" policy aiming at ultimately annexing Taiwan.

By law, specifically the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, the US is obligated to come to the aid of Taiwan if China attacks it. Taiwan, however, must not take the US official pledge for granted. The people of Taiwan should not expect the United States would risk American lives in support of Taiwan. Instead, people in Taiwan must and certainly many of them do put more faith in a strong defense than in international moral support or anything else. While Taiwan is already fairly well armed for its defense against possible Chinese attack,, as long as Beijing refuses to renounce its so-called "sovereign right" to use military force against Taiwan, Taipei must continue to build and up-date its self-defense capability. First of all, it must seek to ensure Taiwan’s inclusion in the Theater Missile Defense system that the US is developing and extending to cover both Japan and South Korea. A functioning TMD umbrella installed by the US in East Asia could vastly reduce the possibility of a Chinese missile attack on Taiwan. Should the US be unprepared to include Taiwan in the TMD system because of Beijing’s objection, the leadership of Taiwan may have to consider the "unthinkable." After all, China not only had fired missiles near Taiwan in 1996 but also hinted shortly after President Lee’s "state-to-state" remark of possibly employing neutron bombs against Taiwan, if necessary. Moreover, it is only sensible that Taiwan possesses what Beijing will ultimately respect. Beijing certainly was not too pleased with India’s successful nuclear tests in May 1998 and is alarmed by the successful testing of an intermediate-range missile that traveled over 1250 miles on April 1, 1999.2 China and India have not been friendly toward each other since the Sino-Indian War of 1962. More importantly, India has considered China as posing a greater long-term threat to India than Pakistan. It is mainly for this reason that India has made the decision to become a nuclear weapon power.3 With India’s becoming a nuclear power on China’s southern flank, " China could be pulled away from focusing on Taiwan and forced into confronting two potential conflicts at once."4 Moreover, Beijing appears to be apprehensive about Taiwan’s capability in producing nuclear arms.5 That being the case, there is all the more reason for Taiwan to possess nuclear weapons as a deterrence to ensure that Taiwan is not subjected to China’s missile coercion.

Aside from maintaining a strong defense, Taiwan has to wage an active campaign of public diplomacy/relations in seeking to further internationalize the Taiwan issue and to break out of the diplomatic isolation imposed by Beijing. It is evident that Taiwan cannot match China, which is a nuclear power, home to one-fifth of the world’s population, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. But Taiwan is a free, democratic, and prosperous country. Economy and democracy are big pluses for Taiwan. Taipei has to make use of the power of media to publicize Taiwan’s economic achievements and democratic miracle. "A Survey of Taiwan" in the November 7, 1998 issue of the Economist and the November 30, 1998 PBS program--"Tug of War: The Story of Taiwan"-- are excellent examples of how the case of Taiwan can be widely and effectively publicized. More can and should be done to better inform Americans and people in other democratic countries about Taiwan and its people. An idea that is worthy of consideration is the inclusion in the Taiwan school curriculum of a segment on liberal values of freedom, democracy, self-determination, the sacredness of human life, human rights and the rule of law. Ideas and writings of prominent democratic thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, for example, deserve inclusion. Not only will this further instill liberal ideas in the minds and hearts of the Taiwanese youths but also effectively demonstrate to the world that Taiwan, indeed, has made its choice for a society of openness and democracy and, consequently cannot be a part of undemocratic China. Westerners, particularly Americans, should understand that the United States has encouraged and aided in the democratic transformation of Taiwan and that the Taiwanese aspiration to be the master of their own destiny is a logical and irreversible outcome of the positive American influence. In essence, the people of Taiwan are struggling for their "Life, Liberty" and are "in the pursuit of Happiness." In this struggle Taiwan is seen as the David confronting the Goliath. And, Beijing is not unaware of the fact that the American public and Congress much favor democratic Taiwan over the authoritarian and undemocratic China. The Chinese leaders should, therefore, realize the inevitability of international condemnation, international trade sanctions, and even military intervention on behalf of Taiwan should Beijing resort to the use of force to resolve China’s differences with Taiwan. Whatever the outcome of the use of military force against Taiwan should unfortunately happen, it surely will do irreparable damage to China, both politically and economically, as well as to Taiwan.

Taiwan must also intensify its efforts at lobbying the US administration and Congress. The island is already known for its "intricate network of supporters that has made Taiwan one of the most effective lobbies in Washington."6 Since Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the US in May 1995, China, however, has beefed up its lobbying efforts in the US. Moreover, Beijing has always enjoyed the invaluable support of some former high-ranking US officials, including former Secretaries of State, Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig and Lawrence Eagelburger, acting as Beijing’s unofficial lobbists.7 Taiwan, therefore, has to do more than in the past. For one thing, there must be better cooperation between the Taipei government and Taiwanese-American organizations, particularly the Formosan Association for Public Affairs which "has lobbied hard in the U.S. Congress."8 Since President Clinton’s June 1998 visit to China, Taiwan has made considerable gain at securing additional congressional support. Ironically, China has done much on its own to contribute to the deterioration of its relations with the US and thus unwittingly aided Taiwan. China’s continuing violation of human rights, including the arrest and trial of leaders of China Democratic Party, banning of the apolitical, spiritual Falungong movement, trade disputes with the US, reported stealing of US nuclear weapon secrets and building of missile capability against Taiwan have alienated Congress and the American public. The Pentagon report of China’s missile built-up against Taiwan has particularly alarmed Congress.9 Legislators friendly to Taiwan have called for the extension of the proposed East Asian Theater Missile Defense system to Taiwan. Moreover, Senators Jesse Helms and Robert G. Torricelli have introduced the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act to boost US arms sales to Taiwan.10 The proposed legislation aims at redressing the balance in favor of Taiwan defense capability. One of its measures is to authorize the sale of a broad array of defense articles such as missile defense equipment, sophisticated air-to-air missiles, air defense systems, and submarine warfare technology. The bill also proposed an official program of military exchanges and joint training exercises with Taiwan. There appears to be considerable bipartisan support for the bill and its passage would be considered as a way of celebrating the Taiwan Relations Act’s 20th anniversary.11 On the other hand, it is certain that the sale of at least some of the defense articles mentioned will be approved not only because of the Taiwan Relations Act but also because the sale will be in the US national interests in maintaining peace and stability in Asia-Pacific region.

Finally, in addition to defense and diplomacy, Taiwan has to engage Beijing through dialogue, the "three d’s " strategy, if you will. When Taiwan has gained reasonable degree of international acceptance, official as well as unofficial, and sufficient military defense capability, Taiwan hopefully can then expect a reasonable chance of winning from Beijing an agreement acceptable to the people of Taiwan. Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan is a free, democratic and self-governing country and not a colony. Beijing’s offer of a deal better than that for Hong Kong simply does not impress the people of Taiwan. What would be an acceptable outcome for Taiwan then? Recently, a consensus has been reached in Taiwan regarding the island’s political status. This is demonstrated by the widespread acceptance of the argument that Taiwan Envoy Ku Chen-fu made in China during his October 1998 visit to China. The argument is essentially one that Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui has advocated for a number of years. Simply put, Lee has argued that the Republic of China on Taiwan is sovereign and independent. And until China is democratized, Taiwan will not consider unification with China.12 The View of Lee, who has an uncanny ability to read and interpret public sentiment, is representative of the great majority of the people of Taiwan. This is further demonstrated by the widespread public support for President Lee’s recent "two states/countries" position. Shouldn’t Beijing leadership respect the growing determination of the people of Taiwan to be the master of their own future?



1. For examples, see Michael Laris and Steven Mufson, " China Mulls Use of Force Against Taiwan," Washington Post, August 13, 1999, p. A1; Charles Heyman, "Would China dare to attack Taiwan?" BBC News, July 21, 1999.

2. For India’s nuclear and missile tests, see John F. Burns, "India Carries Out Nuclear Test in Defiance of International Treaty," New York Times, on the web, May, 12, 1998, and Barry Berak, "India Tests Missile Able to Hit Deep Into Neighbor Lands," New York Times, on the web, April 12, 1999. For factors contributing to India’s decision to go nuclear, see Jaswant Singh, "against Nuclear Apartheid: India’s Case for Nukes," Foreign Affairs, October 1998, pp. 41-52; Ted Galen Carpenter, "Roiling Asia, U.S. Coziness with China Upsets the Neighbors," Foreign Affairs, November/December, 1998, pp. 2-6.

3. For China’s being a threat to India, see John F. Burns: Manik Mehta, "India good will for Taiwan can yield two-way benefits," Free China Journal, March 12, 1999, p. 6.

4. Washington Post, August 19, 1998, p. 23.

5. Myra Wu, "Peking Claim of Nuclear Pact Denied," Free China Journal, May 14, 1998, p. 2. Concerning whether Taipei has the ability to develop nuclear weapons, Taipei’s standard answer has always been "Yes, we can do it, but we do not manufacture." Moreover, Taipei officials boasted that Taiwan could manufacture a nuclear bomb in three months. ["Taipei Pingjang mimi chun-shih ch’ing-pao wai-chaio (Secret military, intelligence and diplomatic relations between Taipei and Pyongyang)," Ya-chou chou-pao (Asia Weekly), January 4-10, 1999, pp. 42-45.]

6. Lawrence Zuckerman, "Taiwan Keeps A Step Ahead of China in U.S. Lobbying," New York Times, on the web, March 14, 1997. See also, Michael Weissforf and Keith B. Richburg, "Taiwan in Courting U.S. Officials, Reflects Yearning for Recognition," Washington Post, Nov. 12, 1996, p. A6.

7. Zuckerman.

8. Larry Niksch, "U.S. Policy toward the China-Taiwan Relationship, Summary of a CRS Workshop," Congressional Research Service: report for Congress, 95-1002F, Sept. 26, 1995.

9. "Report on Military Balance in Taiwan Strait," released on February 25, 1999. Senator Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the US should respond to China’s "threatening military buildup" by enhancing defense cooperation with Taiwan. (See "GOP Lawmakers Urge Taiwan Ties," New York Times, on the web, April 14, 1999.

10. The proposed Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (S.693), March 24, 1999.

11. Responding to the Pentagon’s report on military balance in the Taiwan Strait and anticipating the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, April 10, 1979, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved on March 23, 1999 a resolution calling for an expanded US military cooperation with Taiwan and criticizing the PRC for engaging in a missile build-up against Taiwan. (See "House Passes resolution Reaffirming U.S. Commitment to Taiwan," as reported in U.S. Congress Action, March 23, 1999.)

12. On Nov. 7, 1997, in separate interviews with Washington Post and London Times, President Lee declared that Taiwan "is an independent and sovereign country." In the interview with Washington Post Lee also made it clear that not until China "becomes free, democratic and has social justice" will Taiwan unify with China (Keith B. Richburg, "Leader asserts Taiwan Is ‘Independent, Sovereign,’" Washington Post, Nov 8, 1997, p. A1. See also Taiwan Communiqué, No. 78, December 1997; Nicholas D. Kristof, "Taiwan President Rejects Idea of China Ties," New York Times, on the web, Sept. 1, 1998.)