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U.S. Department of State

U.S. Department of State

The United States and the Security of Taiwan

Winston Lord, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs

Statement before the Subcommittee on East Asia and the Pacific, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Washington, DC, February 7, 1996, an excerpt from Dispatch Magazine, Volume 7, number 6, Article 3, page 29.

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee: I welcome the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss one of the United States' most significant policy issues in Asia. It is also one of the most difficult ones. I commend you for addressing these questions at this time. I hope our exchanges today will serve to dampen recent tensions and promote American interests.

Peace in the Taiwan Strait lies at the core of our China policy. For decades, we have stressed that we will support any peaceful solution to disagreements between Taiwan and the P.R.C. Such a solution obviously must be supported by both sides.

My testimony will discuss the present security situation in the Taiwan Strait area. Then, I will explain why the policy of the United States serves the interests of all parties concerned in maintaining peace and stability. I will describe the dangers to our interests which would result from conflict in the area. And I will urge that we--both the Administration and Congress--move cautiously and cooperatively to maintain the delicate balance that successive Administrations have achieved.

Recent Developments

We may recall crises in the Taiwan Strait threatening U.S. involvement in the late 1950s. In the decades since, peace and stability have prevailed as a result of wise policies on all sides. However, following the visit to the U.S. last summer by Taiwan's President, Lee Teng-hui, tensions have risen with tough political rhetoric in Beijing and a series of military moves by the People's Liberation Army. One Chinese military exercise included the firing for the first time of surface-to- surface missiles into the ocean 100 miles or so north of Taiwan. These developments have raised serious questions and concerns on the island, in the United States, and in neighboring Asian countries about stability in the area. Most recently, there has been speculation in the U.S. and foreign press about further military actions by the P.R.C.

We are concerned by any rise in tension in the region. We have conveyed this to Beijing, and we are watching developments closely. However, having examined all of the available evidence, we cannot conclude that there is an imminent military threat to Taiwan. While it is abundantly clear that the P.R.C. wishes its military activities to be noticed--to influence Taiwan's legislative and presidential elections and to have a restraining effect on Taiwan's international activities--they do not, in our judgment, reflect an intention to take military action against Taiwan. Perhaps more importantly, the Taiwan authorities have reached the same judgment. Though the scale of some of these recent exercises is substantial, the pattern of such exercises in connection with elections in Taiwan is not new; such activities have been observed since 1988. P.R.C. authorities have stated publicly, as well as to us in diplomatic exchanges, that there is no change in their intention to seek a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan question. We, as always, will continue to monitor closely the situation in the Taiwan Strait. But all evidence at our disposal at this time leads to the conclusion that the P.R.C. has no intention to initiate military action.

What then lies behind the recent actions by the Chinese military? As I have suggested, these demonstrations of military strength--and there may be more--are evidently intended to send a message to the Taiwan authorities to curb what the P.R.C. regards as efforts to establish a separate, independent identity for Taiwan. Last June's visit to the U.S. by President Lee Teng-hui was interpreted by the P.R.C., wrongly in our view, as a step toward independence. The Chinese position, of course, is that Taiwan is a part of China, and it thus views the issue as vital to its interests. Some P.R.C. commentators have charged Lee Teng-hui with the intention of abandoning, or postponing indefinitely, the Taiwan authorities' longstanding goal of eventual reunification with the mainland.

While expressing a desire for recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign entity for now, the Taiwan leadership has repeatedly reaffirmed its interest in eventual reunification. Meanwhile, President Lee has sought to appeal both to the desire of the people on Taiwan for greater respect and recognition from the international community. It is also apparent that the majority there wish to remain separate from the People's Republic of China, at least until political and economic conditions on both sides of the Strait make reunification more attractive.

Although neither Taiwan nor the P.R.C. wants a military confrontation, there is a danger that Chinese nationalism in the P.R.C. may collide with Taiwan's search for international recognition and status. Democratic development in Taiwan has permitted the free expression by a portion of the Taiwan populace of a desire for a separate Taiwan identity, expression of which had been largely suppressed under the previous political leadership in Taiwan. Some in Beijing interpret this development as challenging the assumption underlying the political status quo and source of stability in the Taiwan Strait--the acceptance of a single Chinese state by both sides.

Since 1950, Taiwan has been seen in the P.R.C. as a sensitive issue, touching on core notions of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and feelings of nationalism. With the meeting of these two powerful historical forces--growing nationalism on the mainland and increased efforts by Taiwan's democratic polity to obtain greater recognition of its own identity and improve its international status--tensions between Beijing and Taipei have increased. The drawn-out succession to Deng Xiaoping on the mainland and electoral politics on Taiwan have further complicated this situation.

U.S. Policy

It is vital to keep in mind U.S. interests in the Taiwan issue. We insist that the P.R.C. and Taiwan work out their differences peacefully, so as not to disturb the security of the region and the people there. At the same time, our approach is to strictly avoid interference in the process whereby the two sides pursue resolution of differences.

The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979 forms the basis of U.S. policy regarding the security of Taiwan. Its premise is that an adequate defense in Taiwan is conducive to maintaining peace and security while differences remain between Taiwan and the P.R.C. Section 2 (b) states:

It is the policy of the United States...to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States; to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.

Section 3 of the TRA also provides 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.

It further stipulates that:

The President is directed to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom. The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger.

The key elements of the United States' policy toward the Taiwan question are expressed in the three joint communiques with the P.R.C. as follows:

I reiterate the above passages from the TRA and the joint communiques in some detail, since they express precisely the governing principles of our policy. They serve U.S. interests today just as well as in past decades.

Let me now call attention to an aspect of the August 17, 1982, joint communique between the United States and the People's Republic of China, which is extremely important to Taiwan's security. In this document, the P.R.C. stated that its "fundamental policy" is "to strive for a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan question." Based on that P.R.C. assurance, the United States Government made reciprocal statements concerning our intentions with respect to arms sales to Taiwan--that we did not intend to increase the quantity or quality of arms supplied and, in fact, intended gradually to reduce these sales. At the time the joint communique was signed, we made it clear to all parties concerned that our intentions were premised on the P.R.C.'s continued adherence to a policy of striving for peaceful reunification with Taiwan. We continually review our assessment in light of events, particularly during periods of heightened tension. Our judgment is that the P.R.C. has not changed this policy, and we have abided by our commitments.

Taken as a whole, our policy has been unequivocally successful in obtaining our fundamental objective regarding the security of Taiwan-- peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwan Relations Act and the 1982 communique have been complementary elements of this policy. The former has provided the means for our continued support for Taiwan's self-defense capability, while the latter forms the basis for the understanding with the P.R.C. that any resolution of the differences between Taiwan and the mainland must be achieved through peaceful means. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have been consistent with both the TRA and the 1982 joint communique.

Taiwan's weapons systems are not offensive in character but constitute a credible deterrent to military action. With the addition of several new defensive systems purchased or leased from the U.S. in the past few years, Taiwan's self-defense capability will be as strong as at any time since 1949. Those systems include various types of military aircraft, ships, and air-defense and anti-ship missiles. In addition, the U.S. has provided significant technical support for Taiwan's own production of the Indigenous Defense Fighter and PERRY-class frigates.

With U.S.-supplied and jointly developed systems, taken together with those systems which Taiwan has produced domestically and those it is purchasing from other countries--notably 60 MIRAGE fighter aircraft and six LAFAYETTE-class frigates from France--Taiwan has a formidable capacity to defend itself. Although there may be other defensive systems which Taiwan will seek to obtain for its self-defense, the basic inventory of equipment which Taiwan has or will have in its possession will, in our view, be sufficient to deter any major military action against Taiwan.

While our arms sales policy aims to enhance the self-defense capability of Taiwan, it also seeks to reinforce stability in the region. We will not provide Taiwan with capabilities that might provoke an arms race with the P.R.C. or other countries in the region. Moreover, our policy must be applied with a long-term perspective. Any transfer of a complicated modern weapons system generally requires years of lead time before the capability is fully in place. Each new system, moreover, demands a U.S. commitment for continuing logistical and technical support in order to remain effective. Decisions on the release of arms made without proper consideration of the long-term impact both on the situation in the Taiwan Strait and on the region as a whole would be dangerous and irresponsible.

The Stakes

If armed conflict were actually to break out in the Taiwan Strait, the impact on Taiwan, the P.R.C. and, indeed, the region would be extremely serious. The peaceful, stable environment that has prevailed in the Taiwan Strait since the establishment of our current China policy in 1979 has promoted progress and prosperity on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. The benefits to Taiwan and the P.R.C. have been obvious. The shift from the earlier belligerent climate in the Strait to a peaceful and stable one has permitted the realization of Taiwan's economic miracle and has had a direct impact on Taiwan's positive political transformation. Taiwan is now a world-class economic power, and the March presidential elections will cap Taiwan's transition to democracy.

The P.R.C. has enjoyed a positive relationship with the United States and other Western countries that has allowed it to carry out the program of reform and opening to the outside world that has propelled China toward becoming an economic power. Taiwan capital--over $20 billion--has fueled a significant part of China's economic progress, large numbers of Taiwan residents have visited China, and the mainland has become one of Taiwan's largest export markets. All of these achievements would be immediately put at risk in the event of conflict in the Strait.

Conflict would also be costly to the United States and to our friends and allies in the region. Taiwan is an important economic actor throughout East Asia. It is located along one of the main sea lanes in the western Pacific. Any confrontation between the P.R.C. and Taiwan, however limited in scale or scope, would destabilize the military balance in East Asia and constrict the commerce and shipping which is the economic life-blood of the region. It would force other countries in the region to re-evaluate their own defense policies, possibly fueling an arms race with unforeseeable consequences. It would seriously affect the tens of thousands of Americans who live and work in Taiwan and the P.R.C. Relations between the U.S. and the P.R.C. would suffer damage regardless of the specific reaction chosen by the President in consultation with Congress. For all these reasons, we are firmly determined to maintain the balanced policy which is best designed to avoid conflict in the area.

What would the U.S. do if commitments to peaceful settlement appeared to weaken, if hostilities appeared more likely? In this unfortunate circumstance, which neither side seeks, the Administration would immediately meet its obligations under the TRA to consult with the Congress on an appropriate response. Circumstances leading to this situation would be important in determining our response: What caused the breakdown? Both sides have a responsibility to act in ways that promote stability and avoid needless provocation. But I hardly need remind this committee that the people of the United States feel strongly about the ability of the people of Taiwan to determine their future peacefully. This sentiment must not be underestimated.

The Challenge

Our policy must be consistent and must be carefully designed to encourage both sides to find a peaceful and durable solution. As always, our own national interest must be the guiding principle to our policy.

In this regard, we will continue to make clear to the P.R.C. through diplomatic and other channels that any attempt to resolve the Taiwan question through other than peaceful means would seriously affect the interests of the United States. This position comprises a fundamental premise that underlies our policy: that the P.R.C. will pursue a peaceful settlement. Over the past months and, indeed, recent days, we have made clear in our diplomatic dialogue with Beijing our deep concern over exercises and the dangers of escalation. We also have used and will continue to use our military-to-military relationship with the P.R.C. to communicate these concerns directly to PLA leaders.

We must, though, avoid unwarranted actions that could further add to tensions. We should maintain our present prudent and effective policy of arms sales, within the framework of the TRA and in conformity to the 1982 joint communique. We have an enormous stake in preserving stability in Asia and maintaining a productive relationship with the P.R.C. We will continue to engage the Chinese Government on issues of mutual interest and encourage the P.R.C.'s positive participation in the international community. We seek engagement, not confrontation. We expect the Taiwan authorities as well to avoid any actions which could potentially put at risk the interests of all parties concerned.

Taiwan and the P.R.C. must eventually find some sort of common ground, if they are to continue to enjoy the peace and prosperity that exists in the Strait area today. Both sides need to avoid provocative political or military actions that have the potential to destabilize the situation. They must together actively seek ways to address their differences peacefully. This is the only long-term guarantee of Taiwan's security. It is also the only long-term guarantee of peace and stability in East Asia. Only through the resumption of positive dialogue directly between Beijing and Taipei can the route to a peaceful and lasting settlement be found. We understand that the Taiwan authorities are prepared to resume cross-Strait talks. The P.R.C. has also indicated its willingness to expand ties with Taiwan in a number of areas as long as the Taiwan authorities continue to embrace the principle of "one China." We hope the two sides will agree as soon as possible to take up again the dialogue that was suspended last June.

Mr. Chairman, several administrations of both political parties have followed a consistent policy on the subject of today's timely hearing. It is a policy that has served the interests of the United States, the P.R.C., Taiwan, and regional security and prosperity. We intend to pursue this course as outlined in this statement. We call on Beijing and Taipei to exercise restraint and resume dialogue looking toward a peaceful resolution of the issues between them. And we urge bipartisan support in the Congress and Administration that will send a steady signal of American purposes and resolve. We will work closely with you toward this goal.

[end of document]

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Last Updated: March 21, 1996