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America’s Commitment to Taiwan

The Issue

Taiwan is a critical partner of the U.S. Its security, freedom, and economic well-being—and its ability to make decisions about its relationship with Beijing free of coercion—have long been, and ought to remain, important objectives in American foreign policy.

U.S. relations with Taiwan are governed by the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979. Having switched official recognition from the Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on January 1, 1979, Congress passed the TRA to encompass every aspect of its “unofficial” U.S. relations with Taiwan. The TRA and Taiwan have enjoyed broad, bipartisan support since. There are, however, several specific policy commitments the TRA enshrines into U.S. law that need to be given vigilant attention so as to avoid slippage in U.S. policy.

Arms Sales. The TRA makes it a matter of policy that the U.S. “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.” The TRA further directs that the “President and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services based solely upon their judgment of the needs of Taiwan.” This means that, as Ronald Reagan pointed out in his assurances to the Taiwanese in 1982, that the U.S. may not consult with the government in Beijing on arms sales to Taiwan. Judging by Taiwan’s military deficiencies, the U.S. has fallen dangerously behind where it needs to be in order to help Taiwan defend its territory against the PRC. Despite a welcome warming in relations between the PRC and Taiwan in recent years— symbolized in 2015 by the first meeting between the heads of each government in Singapore in 70 years—the PRC military remains focused on the potential use of force to seize Taiwan. Indeed, as the Department of Defense’s annual report on the Chinese military states: “Preparing for potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait remains the focus and primary driver of China’s military investment.”

President Obama has sold approximately $14 billion in arms to Taiwan. Half of it, however, was initiated by the previous Administration. Having fulfilled most of the Bush Administration pledges, and substituted upgrades of Taiwan’s current fleet of F-16 fighter jets for its requests to buy new ones, the Obama Administration waited more than four years to make a new sale—the longest such period of inactivity since 1979. In the event, the $1.8 billion sale in December 2015 consisted largely of second-hand equipment and munitions.

International Organizations. The TRA prohibits the U.S. from “supporting the exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from continued membership in any international financial institution or any other international organization.” Taiwan belongs to 35 international organizations or subsidiary agencies, including the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). However, it has been systematically excluded from many others. U.S. support for Taiwanese U.N. membership would directly contradict long-standing, bipartisan policy. However, the Obama Administration has supported Taiwan’s “meaningful participation” in more international organizations, including U.N. agencies, and Congress has sought to hold the Administration to its word. Congress has achieved some recent limited success with regard to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the World Health Assembly (WHA). Current efforts in Washington are focused on gaining Taiwanese participation in INTERPOL.

Security Guarantee. The TRA contains assurances of U.S. concern for Taiwan’s security that are as strong as possible short of a treaty commitment. It declares “that peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States, and are matters of international concern [as opposed to internal PRC concern]” and that use of anything “other than peaceful means” constitutes “a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” It also states that U.S. policy is 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.” The U.S. can best meet this commitment by maintaining its own military capability and readiness vis-à-vis the standing threat to Taiwan from the PRC; maintaining the closest possible military relationship as with Taiwan; providing Taiwan the weapons it needs to contribute to its own defense; and making abundantly clear to Beijing the consequences that will ensue from the use of force.

Trade Relations. Nothing in U.S.–China policy or the TRA prohibits the U.S. from concluding trade agreements with Taiwan, yet progress in trade talks such as those under the U.S.–Taiwan Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) has been very slow. In addition to the TIFA process, Taiwan has expressed interest in joining the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement (TPP). In a region deeply committed to regional economic integration, Taiwan has been prevented, due to sensitivities over PRC reaction, from joining regional trade tie-ups, including the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), or making many bilateral arrangements. South Korea, its closest national competitor in the region, is part of the RCEP and has bilateral FTAs with the U.S., the EU, and China. South Korea will also likely be the first new member of the TPP, which will further isolate Taiwan and leave it more dependent economically on the PRC. Beyond agreements with five of its small diplomatic allies (the nations which maintain official diplomatic relations), Taiwan has FTAs with only New Zealand and Singapore.


Support Taiwan’s Acquisition of Diesel-electric Submarines.

Make Available New Advanced Fighter jets for Taiwan.

Actively Support Taiwan’s Participation in INTERPOL and other International Organizations.

Support Taiwan’s Earliest Possible Accession to a TPP that Enhances Economic Freedom among its Participant Countries, if Congress Approves the Agreement. In the absence of such, or as incentive to pursue the reforms to join a TPP, the U.S. should pursue a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA )with Taiwan.

Facts and Figures

  • Taiwan has been a vibrant democracy since 1996. As of 2015, it has celebrated two peaceful transfers of power between opposing parties.
  • Taiwan has diplomatic relations with 22 nations and representative offices in 57 countries, while foreign countries maintain 68 embassies or representative offices in the ROC.
  • Taiwan is the fifth-largest economy in East Asia.
  • Measuring by GDP per capita, Taiwan is the 28th-richest country in the world and the 14th-largest export market for the U.S. For agricultural products, it is seventh in the world.
  • According to The Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, Taiwan is the 14th-freest economy in the world.

Selected Additional Resources

Dean Cheng, “F-16C/D Fills Taiwan’s Fighter Need,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 3960, June 5, 2013.

Dean Cheng, “Why Taiwan Needs Submarines,” Heritage Foundation Issue Brief No. 4328, January 12, 2015.

Dakota L. Wood, ed., 2016 Index of U.S. Military Strength.

Ambassador Terry Miller and Anthony B. Kim, 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, “Taiwan.”

Walter Lohman and Stephen Yates, “Secretary Clinton’s Asia Trip: Getting China Right,” Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 2301, February 18, 2009.