Arthur Waldron

Lauder Professor of International Relations Department of History University of Pennsylvania

My subject is the evolution of United States policy toward Taiwan. I spent some time wrestling with what I would say to you today—after all what new can one say of the post-diplomatic relationship between Taipei and Washington that is now nearly forty years old and that has been examined microscopically at every stage? Initially I thought I would look just at the Obama administration, so I read the account of its Asian policy by former National Security Council Asia Director Jeffrey A. Bader, Obama and China’s Rise.[1] This is a good and workmanlike account, very useful to anyone interested in the topic, but simply to recount what it says about Taiwan policy in the last four years would be very dull, for everything is seemingly framed in the language of the three communiqués and so forth, which has been effectively constant since 1982 when the last of them was concluded.

Then I remembered that after he left office Bader had paid a visit to Taiwan. It came at a time when somewhat of a tempest had just concluded in Washington over some essays suggesting that perhaps the time had come to “abandon” Taiwan.[2] China beckoned, after all, ever more brightly; she was stronger and richer than ever, which meant that maintaining the capacity to defend Taiwan—which is all we are legally bound to do, not in fact to defend the island–was potentially a more costly commitment than it had been when it was written into the Taiwan Relations Act. An arms sale package was in process as well. Some China policy pundits were of the opinion that this sale should be “the last” though without specifying what would follow next. Bader himself writes that Taiwan arms sales are the chief source of tension in American Chinese relations, always protested, constantly under attack from China and some elsewhere. So what did Bader say when he actually got to Taiwan in March of 2012, about a year after he had left office?

His statements were quite remarkable. Here is an extract from the news report:

“The question of abandoning Taiwan is ‘unthinkable,’ he said.

Bader said Taiwan has demonstrated it is free and democratic.

“It would be completely contrary to US principles to accept the notion that free people be forced to accept a status that is not their choice,” he said.

It is embodied in US law and the US-China joint communiqués  that Washington help ensure a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, Bader said.

“Peaceful resolution means no resolution can be imposed upon the people of Taiwan contrary to their wishes,” he said.[3]


Some months earlier on October 4, 2011the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, Kurt Campbell and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Asia-Pacific Peter Lavoy, had given related testimony before the Congress, which he titled “Why Taiwan Matters.”[4] Both officials spoke warmly of the U.S. relationship with Taiwan. Campbell of course gave to it the official frame it has acquired over the years.

He cited the TRA; the “six assurances” made to Taiwan by former President Ronald Reagan in 1982 regarding arms sales, sovereignty and negotiations between the ROC and mainland China; and the three communiques between the U.S. and mainland China form the foundation for Washington’s overall approach in dealing with cross-strait issues.” [5] I attach significance to the inclusion of the “Six Assurances” in this statement. They are much fought over in Washington, but Campbell is straightforward. Most of his statement is very upbeat indeed:

“Taiwan’s future will always be based on a deep and abiding friendship with the American people and a close and strong partnership.” Arms sales received some attention, with Campbell noting that some $12 billion worth had been approved in the previous two years. But the import of the statements was far broader. Washington was determined “to broaden relations at all levels with Taipei.“ Campbell noted that Washington has upgraded the level of formal contacts with Taipei, and will continue to dispatch high-ranking officials on visits to Taiwan, adding that the administration is looking forward to meetings with senior Taiwan representatives on the sidelines of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. . . Regarding progress on including Taiwan in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, Campbell said Washington is close to granting Taiwanese travelers visa-free entry, considering the two sides share frequent civilian exchanges and close economic ties. “We are working toward the finish line,” he said. He went on to point out that the U.S. “has long been a vocal supporter of Taiwan’s meaningful participation in international organizations,” including the World Health Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.” [6]

This year we can add that the dispute over beef that has long held the relationship hostage has also been resolved.[7]

I accord a lot of significance to these three statements. They are broad and powerful endorsement of Taiwan. Note that Bader’s statement dwells positively on Taiwan’s demonstration that it is free and democratic, while stressing that its people cannot be forced to accept a status that is not their choice. Lavoy reiterates a high degree of military cooperation. Campbell expresses a desire to upgrade relations with Taiwan further, to deepen cooperation, and to build on friendship.

These statements represent a remarkable change from American position during the recent Chen Shuibian years. I do not pretend to understand what went on during that period, but clearly the American Institute in Taiwan viewed the government through what some now say were distorting lenses. My old graduate school roommate the very able Douglas H. Paal was the head of AIT from 2002 to 2006, at the end of which time, according to one source, he was forced out as the result of an unfavorable inspection report. During his incumbency, according to the sources. American assessments focused above all on the need to accommodate China and to avoid what was seen as very possible conflict over Taiwan between the United States and China. These views are said to have been shared by James F. Moriarty in the Department of State and Dennis Wilder at the CIA.

According to the late Ambassador James Lilley, some of the problem, if we may read between the lines, came from faulty CIA reporting of Taiwan by employees who did not read the newspapers but rather relied over-much on negative assessments of Chen from Kuomintang sources. This CIA derived material came to drive decisions in the Department of State.[8]  I would note that Chen’s lack of English proficiency undoubtedly contributed to problems as well.

Now take your mind back to 1979 and the years immediately following when Taiwan’s continued independent existence faced its greatest peril. How did U.S. officials talk about Taiwan then? The usual style was rather cold, grudging, and legalistic. I well remember debating Ambassador Chas Freeman at the Council on Foreign Relations a dozen years ago. Freeman was convinced that we faced nuclear war if we did not do something about Taiwan, ponderously emphasizing that the “Chinese people of Taiwan” speak the “Min-nan dialect of Chinese” etc. period.[9] More recently, at the beginning of the Obama administration, when Admiral Dennis Blair was being confirmed as National Intelligence Director, the partial accuracy of reports of his remark in 2000 that Taiwan was “the turd in the punchbowl” [fine old Navy diction]of U.S.-China relations was confirmed, though Blair maintained he was speaking of a specific person, not of Taiwan in general.[10] One section of the American foreign policy elite has always been viscerally anti-Taiwan. We still hear from them regularly. But finding their influence in the three statements I have quoted, by Bader, Campbell, and Lavoy is very difficult indeed. This is a remarkable development.

What has happened, I think, is that the unexpected evolution of Taiwan away from dictatorship toward pluralism, genuine freedom, and democracy, has impressed Washington and not Washington only. At the same time, the Obama administration in particular has become more sensitive than were predecessors to the role Taiwan plays in maintaining the credibility of American alliances in Asia, which are so crucial to peace and stability, this owing to China’s new assertiveness with respect to territorial claims.[11] No longer is Taiwan seen as an isolated and unique problem, left over from history around which we must navigate. Instead, awareness has grown of the reality of Taiwan today and its resources for the region (and its actual importance to U.S. policy) along with an acceptance that Taiwan is not going to disappear anytime soon, at least if the United States is in the deciding position.

As is well known, Henry Kissinger promised Zhou Enlai in 1976 that Taiwan would be China’s in less than ten years.[12] Kissinger was deadly serious. He was insistent that Taiwan must be “sacrificed” to China to cement the relationship. He was absolutely confident that the steps he and Nixon were planning to carry out would in fact snuff out the twilight quarter century of existence that the Republic of China had enjoyed on Taiwan since its loss of China. Zhou went to great lengths to ensure that all pathways for Taiwan’s continued existence were shut off: “no two Chinas, no one China one Taiwan, no independent Taiwan.” Kissinger agreed to these so-called “three noes” at his first meeting with the Chinese premier. Later on June 30, 1998 no less than President Bill Clinton officially endorsed them.[13] No reason exists to doubt that the Chinese were expecting actually to rule Taiwan courtesy of the United States, and sooner than Hong Kong.

What would have happened if instead of sincerely promising the Chinese that they would get Taiwan soon, as he did, Kissinger had somehow enjoyed a gift of prophecy, and was instead able to say as the fraught negotiations proceeded: “By the year 2012 I can tell you authoritatively that Taiwan will have an elected president, beginning his second term; its own Olympic team; “unofficial” relations with more countries than Chiang Kai-shek ever managed official, a representative office in Washington matched by an American office in Taipei, and a military having, among other things, F-16s supplied by the United States.”

Frankly I think that would have been a bit much for China to swallow. The negotiations would probably have come to a halt. In their early years they were treated with great delicacy. The American Institute in Taiwan did not process U.S. visas; the U.S. decided not to sell the F-20 fighter, which had been specially designed for Taiwan, lest the whole relationship be derailed, while president after president gave just a little bit more here and there. Even under George W. Bush the American monitory approach overtook the initial friendlier approach.

It is clear to me, then, that a substantial degree of evolution has taken place in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Even though it is still couched in terms that do not do justice to the status the island would have in the international community were it not for the Chinese veto, the degree of cooperation between the two sides is frankly of an extent and a nature that would have been impossible to imagine even thirty years ago. Credit here goes to all players, including the Chinese, who may feel that they were deeply misled by the Americans—though the Americans were as blind as anyone to what would actually come. Credit also goes to the Taiwanese who have created a democratic society that attracts genuine admiration and support from those who know it. And of course to the Americans, who have had the vision to embrace this historic accomplishment.

This evolution, however, brings some risks to which I would now like to turn. To sum up what I want to say in the next section of my talk, the danger of Taipei mismanaging relations with China in a way that adversely affects Taiwan is now a far greater threat than the loss of U.S. support.

The role of the Taiwanese in their homeland’s security has changed profoundly. Bader notes with respect to arms sales that the Taipei government has not in fact purchased some of the items approved for sale by President Bush in 2008. He might add that Taiwan’s military budget has not been growing. One recalls the terrible damage done to U.S.-Taiwanese trust by the Kuomintang unwillingness to take up offered American arms sales under President Chen Shuibian, astonishing to most American observers, who did not understand that elements in the Kuomintang were more concerned with holding power in the island, if necessary with Chinese help, than they were about maintaining security. It used to be that whether or not Taiwan would be well-enough defended to resist attack was, at root, an American decision. To the extent that now depends on military budgets, as it does very largely, it has become ultimately a Taiwanese decision. If Taiwan does not demonstrate a realistic and businesslike approach to her own defense, however, one may expect that American willingness to become involved will diminish.

Americans will be watching closely two indicators of how seriously the Taipei government takes its military responsibilities. One set of course are the budget as a percentage of expenditure and GDP, the competence or not of the Taiwan forces as perceived by our analysts, the degree of intelligence penetration of the Taiwan forces by China and how seriously the government acts against that, and related considerations.  The second set will be the progress of indigenous weapons development. I believe if would have been impossible for Taiwan to develop her growing array of locally produced weapons, including supersonic anti-ship missiles, cruise missiles, and so forth, which have a potentially powerful impact on the military balance, without some degree of American complaisance, if not actual cooperation. Given that every country must maintain deterrence and a second strike capability (non-nuclear) and that the United States is cautious not to provide weapons that fit these essential roles, it is essential that Taiwan continue indigenous development, indeed strengthen it. My own reading on the situation of this effort at present is not clear.

Furthermore, the Taiwan government under Ma Ying-jeou has adopted a “sunshine policy” toward China that has a rationale, to be sure, but risks forgetting that although the prospect of conflict seems relatively small at the moment, China is not really Taiwan’s friend, or even the friend of Ma Ying-jeou or the Kuomintang. Beijing is looking for accommodating Taiwanese who will hollow out the island’s security and constitutional institutions while dulling its vigilance, ultimately making a peaceful Chinese absorption possible—at which time a group of Chinese rulers will be assigned.

American policy relies on a set of assumptions about the future of Asia that received their final form at a time when Mao Zedong (1893-1976) enjoyed absolute power in China, Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) was in power in Taiwan and Richard Nixon in the United States. These assumptions are challenged above all by the movement of Taiwanese away from the Kuomintang party-prescribed Chinese identity toward something more indigenous and genuine. The fundamental difference between American and Chinese policies on Taiwan was reconciled forty years ago in the Shanghai Communiqué assertion that all Chinese on either side of the Strait believe that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of that China. That seemed unexceptionable at the time: certainly few around Nixon and Kissinger had any idea of how potentially powerful local feeling might be, though a fair amount had been written, some by former State Department officials, explaining this. In today’s Taiwan the number of people who self-identify as Chinese only is in single digits; those who identify as both Chinese and Taiwanese is much larger but still short of a majority. This evolution of consciousness is something of which both China and the United States are uneasily aware but about which they have little by way of response, other than to try to penalize those who embody it.

That is what happened after Tsai Ing-wen paid a carefully prepared visit to Washington. Tsai is one of the most impressive individuals I have ever met anywhere;  I would have thought that somewhere in the official scuttlebutt after her visit some acknowledgment might have been made of that fact. Far from it, however. An anonymous administration figure telephoned the Financial Times in a flagrant breach of protocol to denounce her as too inexperienced and unprepared for managing Taiwanese-Chinese relations.

To be sure, these fundamentally unfair comments nevertheless contain some truth. The Democratic Progressive Party, whose standard-bearer Tsai was, is an unruly congeries of politicians and voters, ungoverned by strict party rules and policies. On China policy it includes some who might be satisfied with a version of Lee Teng-huei’s much maligned “special state to state relationship” while ranging to others for whom only an independent internationally recognized Republic of Taiwan will do. The problem is that neither end of this spectrum is satisfactory to China, which insists that one way or another Taiwan has got to be a part of it. For a long time many champions of Taiwan independence argued that the problem was the Kuomintang. Once it was gone, taking with it a threat to Chinese communist power, danger would cease and with it unwillingness to accept an independent Taiwan.  That has proven to be incorrect. The DPP is faced with a choice of abandoning its founding principles, or being potentially excluded from power because of a China policy that is not plausible.

The United States is much happier with the approach taken by Ma Ying-jeou who has accepted the existence of a 1992 consensus according to which both sides agree that there is only one China, but have different explanations of what that means.

As happened with the language in the Shanghai communiqué, the People’s Republic has sought, taking it as a beginning, to tighten and make it clearer, so that it moves from being fog to cover disagreement to being, first very roughly, but then ever more exactly, a definition of the situation. The United States was drawn into just this sort of tendency leading to the promulgation of our “one China policy.” Now Taiwan is being drawn in the same way, with its confusing series of attempts to assert that Taiwan is somehow part of China but not part of the People’s Republic of China. The Kuomintang is uniquely poorly prepared to resist this drift. All sides speak of the status quo across the strait. This should be understood broadly as meaning that Taiwan is free from coercion. If status quo comes to be understood as including the 1992 consensus and all that Ma has built on it, then the United States will be tempted again to take sides in Taiwanese politics. Some such as David Brown are said to have conveyed such warnings to Taipei.[14]

To be fair, I think a renewal of the sort of search for de jure independence that many in the DPP want would lead to great difficulties with any American administration. But continued existence, de facto independence, and so forth, are things that the United States now—in a remarkable evolution—has come, at least tacitly to support. Time is on Taiwan’s side, not China’s, and if Taiwan can work steadily, consistently, and above all without haste, every day that passes without Chinese administration reduces by a certain amount the possibility that Chinese administration will ever come.

In this respect the current United States administration differs little from its immediate predecessors, inhabiting the twilight that followed the realization that the state was not about to merge with China anytime soon, but at a time when no clear road other than a continued rhetorical presumption of the same was possible.

Finally, and this is my most important point, the context of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship has been unexpectedly changed by China during the Obama administration. For decades it has been a cliché in Washington that China is a status quo power, one that welcomes (if not publicly) the American security role in Asia, above all as a means of preventing Japan from becoming too strong—this is the so-called “American cork in the Japan bottle” argument.

China’s indication, beginning in 2010 and renewed since then, that she lays claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea and other areas has come as a real shock. To be sure the maps delimiting these claims date back to the era of Republican China, but for most of the period of the People’s Republic they have been dogs that did not bark. Personally I have always been concerned that irredentist or revisionist claims by China could be the spark for conflict. I took the question up in 1994 in a long conversation with former Foreign Minister Huang Hua, who told me that yes, China would pick up all those territories one by one. I have also done what I can to visit some of the areas at issue. Thus two years ago as a guest of the Japanese Foreign Ministry I visited Guam, the Sakashima Islands to the south including Yonaguni, which is only sixty miles from Taiwan, also taking a Self-Defense Force helicopter for a flyover of the Senkaku Islands (which are claimed also by Taiwan and China).

Those Japanese territories, however, are only a fraction of what China would appear to be claiming. Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam are directly implicated in the new claims to the South China Sea. Japan needs no reminding about her territories. The Russians are naturally worried about Siberia and the Far East. The Indians are troubled about nearby seas, Chinese development in Sri Lanka, Burma, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, as well as Beijing’s forward policy in Arunachal Pradesh.

It used to be said that Taiwan was the only conceivable flashpoint for great power conflict—this indeed was an article of faith. Now, however, one can count a good dozen potential flashpoints as a result of China’s taking up these long dormant claims.

How this irredentism benefits China, or more specifically the Chinese government, is difficult to see. Even the Germans in World War I recognized that things had to be taken one at a time: first you knock out France, then you deal with Russia—though even that proved impossible. The Japanese in World War II would probably have escaped with something permanent, perhaps Manchuria, had they not foolishly decided that the Philippines, then an American colony, posed a threat to their Indochinese flank, throwing themselves into an impossible war with the United States.

Multi-front war is the greatest fear of the military strategist. Yet now China has effectively announced that she will consider using force against any number of neighboring states, in a way that could well elicit coordinated action against her. Even the limited action China has taken so far seems to have ricocheted back in a way that has taken her by surprise.

As a result of all this, Taiwan can no longer be viewed as a solitary flashpoint. Rather it is, or could be, part of a web of collective security that prevents China from stumbling into war. Whether Taiwan will in fact adopt such a policy of international cooperation, however, remains to be seen. Certainly there are voices in the island that would prefer a pan-Chinese approach. If these voices prevail, the danger is that Taiwan’s future will be foreclosed and that she will become a version of Hong Kong.

Let me conclude by saying something about China. Today China conveys an impression of great power, economic dynamism, and political order. This impression is not entirely misleading. From 1949 to 1976, the period of Mao Zedong’s rule, China was in chaos most of the time, inflicting almost constant damage on herself and her people, while achieving little if anything by way of progress. Mao was not dead a month before the military and high party officials stepped in to banish forever him, his ideas, and his would-be heirs. Do not be misled by the seeming veneration of Mao in China today—his embalmed body, the portrait at Tiananmen, the flow of films, etc. I believe that what really frightened his colleagues about Bo Xilai was his embrace of Maoist slogans, songs, and propaganda. China’s present leaders share with the dissidents a reflexive revulsion when faced with things Maoist—the “sea of red” honghai 紅海 elicits from them a powerful reaction of complete negation. The years since then, thirty six in all, more than the whole time Mao ruled, have seen relative tranquility in China: order in society, individuals more able to improve their own lives than at any time since 1949, regular and good schooling for class after class of urban students, and the construction of stunning infrastructure in major cities. Of course this is an appearance. The reality of the democracy movement of spring 1989, which saw tens of millions of ordinary Chinese take to the streets of cities and towns across the country in the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in human history, and its crushing, reminds us of pressures, tensions, unfilled aspirations, and so forth, that we cannot see now but will see sooner or later.

What this means is that China can and probably will change, perhaps quite dramatically, in the lifetimes of those of us in this room. Whether we will see a constitutional state emerge, or a continuation and development of current patterns of official nationalism, state socialism, and militarism, or perhaps disorder and uncertainty, remains to be seen. Allowance for change in China must, however, be built into our calculations.

I have argued elsewhere that in the Nixon administration the United States may have been considering replacing Tokyo with Beijing as her chief Asian interlocutor.[15] That would be very risky, for it would make American policy in the region a hostage of what happened in China. Close ties with China would mean that disorder originating there would propagate, by those ties, into the larger world. Fortunately the United States seems to have abandoned a fully Sinocentric policy in Asia, particularly since the developments of Chinese territorial claims in 2010.

Taiwan faces the same risks. If Taiwan becomes too dependent upon China, then trouble in China will spill over into the island, a small state that lacks the sort of margin for error that both China and the United States possess.

When I speak to Japanese audiences I compare possible disorder in China to earthquakes with their seismic waves, foci, epicenters, etc. For decades now Japan has designed the buildings of Tokyo to resist earthquakes. Much the same has been done in Taipei. This should be an example for foreign policy as well. Whatever structures China’s neighbors create must be robust enough to ride out any storms or quakes originating on the continent. This advice is perhaps most important to Taiwan above all.

[1] Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2012.




[4] See Campbell’s statement at and Lavoy’s at




[8] Author’s personal information.



[11] See Arthur Waldron, “Political Aspects of Taiwan’s Security in a New Political Environment” Orbis 56.3 (Summer 2012), pp, 447-469.

[12] See Arthur Waldron, “Nixon and Taiwan in 1972: The Week that Didn’t Change the World,” in Peter C. Y. Chow, ed. The One China Dilemma (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 159-178 at p. 169.


[14] Author’s personal information

[15] Waldron, 2012 see note 11.