U.S.-TAIWAN RELATIONS: WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Richard C. Bush
The Brookings Institution
December 3, 2007
Today I wish to speak about why U.S.-Taiwan relations have sunk to such a low
point. Personally, this deterioration is a sad outcome for me since I have spent much of
my professional career trying to promote the opposite: the best possible relations between
our two countries. That was a specific ambition of mine during the five years that I
served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. For example, during my first
visit as AIT chairman in 1997 I took the initiative to invite then-Mayor Chen Shui-bian to
come to Washington D.C. because I believed that if there was an even modest chance that
Mr. Chen might become Taiwan’s president it was in America’s interest to broaden and
deepen communication with him and his camp. Both the Clinton and Bush
Administrations worked hard, I believe, to have good relations with the Chen
Administration, and they succeeded for a time. So the turn for the worse is a matter of
But Richard Bush’s personal feelings are less important than the analytic puzzle that the
current situation presents. The United States and Taiwan share economic interests,
political values, and the challenge posed by China’s military modernization. True, the
history of the last sixty years has not been problem-free, but objectively there is far more
that unites our two countries and joins our two peoples than divides us. So why the
apparent clash of interests? Why, for example, did the Bush Administration start as the
most Taiwan-friendly administration since the termination of diplomatic relations (or
since World War II) and end up as probably the most hostile?
We can examine a series of possible explanations and whether they ring true. Based on
those explanations that are most compelling, we can then assess what will be needed to
put U.S.-Taiwan relations on a sounder basis. In the process of discussing those
explanations, I will come back to the one implied in the title of this session, that
something about Taiwan’s political development causes tensions in U.S.-Taiwan
Insufficient Communications Channels
The first possible explanation is that the communications channels that exist between our
two governments do not permit a quality exchange of messages between our leaders.
Specifically, the rules that the United States has adopted unilaterally for the conduct of its
unofficial relationship with the island prevent top officials in Washington – the president,
national security adviser, secretary of state, secretary of defense – from having direct,
meaningful interaction with their Taiwan counterparts. How, one might ask, can the
United States truly understand the perspectives and intentions of Taiwan leaders unless
they have an opportunity to talk with senior Washington officials face to face?
There is no question that when two leaders get along well – when they “click” – it makes
a huge difference in their countries’ relations. Look at Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin or
George W. Bush and Koizumi Junichiro or Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai. But the
opposite is also true: when personal ties between leaders are bad, it exacerbates the
In the case of Taiwan, a die was cast in 1978. The Carter Administration set the
parameters for U.S.-Taiwan government-to-government interaction as it normalized
relations with the PRC and those parameters were limited. We accepted an unofficial
relationship and defined it in a certain way. There was a revision in 1994 and greater
flexibility introduced after 2001. But it is still an unofficial relationship. To make their
Taiwan counterparts feel better, American officials sometimes emphasize how important
the substance of our relations are, but Taiwan officials, coming as they do from the
Chinese cultural world, believe that form is substance.
All that is true. What is also true is that Washington has taken special steps, within the
context of the unofficial relationship, to create opportunities for “high quality” interaction.
The Clinton Administration instituted a channel where Taiwan’s secretary-general of the
national security council met periodically with the U.S. deputy national security adviser. I
participated in a number of those meetings. I believe they were very useful. There are
reports that during the Bush Administration the senior director for Asia on our national
security council staff – the U.S. president’s personal adviser on China and Taiwan issues
– made visits to Taiwan and met with President Chen Shui-bian. Those kinds of
interactions are not the same as a meeting of presidents, to be sure, or the U.S. secretary
of state and Taiwan’s foreign minister. But within the context of an unofficial
relationship, they are high-value encounters if – and this is a very important if – there is a
convergence of interests and strategy between our two governments. If interests and
strategy do not converge, then it usually doesn’t matter at what level the meetings occur.
U.S. Interests and Taiwan Democracy in Fundamental Conflict
The second explanation sometimes raised is that there is a fundamental contradiction
between Taiwan’s democracy and American foreign policy interests. By the way, this
explanation is at odds with substance of one of the few personal initiatives I made during
my career as chairman of AIT. That occurred toward the end of the Clinton
Administration when I got approval to introduce into the set of statements that composed
U.S. Taiwan policy the idea that for the United States, the Taiwan Strait issue should be
resolved peacefully and with the assent of the people of Taiwan. The premise of that
formulation was that there was no fundamental contradiction between Taiwan’s
democracy and U.S. interests.
To explore the opposite hypothesis – that there is a fundamental contradiction, I cite as a
text an advertisement that my friend Mr. Koo Kwan-min placed in The Washington Post
and The New York Times on September 17th. Mr. Koo objected to several elements in U.S.
policy towards Taiwan. He noted that:
• Washington opposed the effort, through a referendum, to allow the Taiwan people
to express their desire to enter the United Nations and to confirm the island’s
status as a sovereign state.
• A Bush Administration official had said that Taiwan was not a state.
• The Bush Administration was taking Beijing’s side in this dispute and appeasing
China in its pressure on Taiwan.
• Washington was unjustly opposed to Taiwan’s adopting a new constitution, new
national name, and new national anthem, all as Taiwan’s means to stand up to
Chinese pressure and, I infer, all as expressions of a Taiwan identity.
• The Bush Administration has failed to understand the emergence of that Taiwan
identity over the last two decades and the policy implications that flow from it.
The theme that runs through Mr. Koo’s polemic is that, although Taiwan has been acting
in the finest spirit of America’s democratic history and values, the United States
government has contributed to Taiwan’s international orphanhood and has been complicit
in its suppression by China. That is, the imperatives of American foreign policy are at
odds with the aspirations of the long suffering people of Taiwan.
Although not all of what Mr. Koo says is factually correct, I respect his point of view. It
is a serious perspective and deserves to be taken seriously by American friends of Taiwan,
even if they do not agree with it. This viewpoint is based on certain premises: that the
motivations of Taiwan actions are based on certain moral and legal principles, that
China’s actions have an immoral and illegitimate basis both in general and specifically as
regards Taiwan, and so Taiwan need not take China’s interests into account when
deciding its course (and neither should the United States). For some who hold this
viewpoint, there is in the background a historical memory of repression, U.S external
control, and general victimization.
This viewpoint does raise a couple of questions. First of all, one must ask if the
aggressive assertion of an exclusive Taiwan identity and the policies that seem to flow
from it are the most salient issue for Taiwan’s democracy. Or does it represent the
advocacy of an articulate and active minority within Taiwan’s democratic system? I
know that polls say that a large majority supports UN membership but I wonder how
important that issue is in comparison with other policy issues. The polls don’t measure
intensity. They also don’t ask what people feel about the UN membership issue if we
hypothesize that negative consequences would occur from pursuing it at all costs.
A second question. Taiwan people who conclude that U.S. foreign policy interests are
incompatible with Taiwan democracy have to explain a mystery. The mystery is: how
was it that the administration of George W. Bush—which, I can tell you, came into office
with definite plans for improving U.S. relations with Taiwan far beyond where Bill
Clinton left them—has turned out to be more unfriendly than Clinton? Something
happened. You cannot blame communist brain-washing of the State Department, an
explanation I have heard. You cannot put it all on the U.S. dependence on China for help
on counter-terrorism, North Korea, and Iran. China has been helpful, but not that helpful.
Taiwan Leaders Put U.S. and Taiwan Security at Risk for Political Gain
Let me turn to the current explanation of the United States government, and for my text I
draw on the September speech of my friend, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas
Christensen. I know this was a very difficult speech for Taiwan people to read, because it
was so frank and critical. But I think that U.S. officials believed that they had no choice
but to provide a clear, explicit, and detailed explanation of American opposition to the
UN referendum. Let me summarize the key points of the Dr. Christensen’s argument, but
not in the order that he made them.
• DPP leaders undertook the UN referendum, including the name Taiwan, because
they believed it would help them in the 2008 election.
• In light of past pledges, the inclusion of the symbolically charged name element
in the referendum created the impression that DPP leaders were taking a step to
change the status quo (a change which the United States opposed).
• That action ignored Chinese redlines and reactions and so constituted needless
provocative behavior (it might lead to a PRC military reaction). The referendum
initiative in turn put at risk the security of people of Taiwan, in which the United
States had an interest, and the security of the United States.
• The U.S. government sought privately to dissuade DPP leaders from pursuing this
course of action, but to no avail. It therefore had no choice, in its own interests
and for the interests of the security of the people of Taiwan, to voice its concern.
“Friends have an obligation to warn friends who are moving in an unwise
To be clear, in the U.S. government view, the UN referendum was not a mechanism to
give voice the aspirations of all the people of Taiwan; it was a means to advance the
political fortunes of the DPP.
Dr. Christensen’s viewpoint is shared, I believe, by many mainstream foreign-policy
thinkers in the United States. But it does raise some questions. Dr. Christensen is careful
to say that the name element of the referendum “appears . . . to be intended as a step to
change the status quo.” Well, is it or is it not? It makes a difference. He suggests that the
referendum “could be interpreted by many to be legally binding.” Well, is it or isn’t it? It
makes a difference. He is not explicit as he might be. Likely, what is behind the
vagueness is not only that there can be differing interpretations of these points, but that
considerable uncertainty—and mistrust—has been created by the salami slicing of the
last few years. That growing uncertainty and mistrust has made it difficult for American
officials to accept Taiwan assurances about their benign intentions at face value. On the
other side of the coin, Washington is also concerned not to leave any impression that the
referendum is a justification for the use of force against Taiwan.
There are some Americans, I might note by the way, who see no ambiguity in the current
situation. They have concluded that the objective of Taiwan’s leaders is to separate the
island from the state called China and that this objective is fundamentally at odds with
the U.S. interest of preserving peace and security in this area, because it would
unnecessarily provoke a forceful PRC response. The United States, therefore, should
oppose Taipei’s course at all costs. They believe that the democratic rationale is just a
Coming back to Dr. Christensen’s speech, I would go beyond what he said about political
symbolism. I actually think the name issue is more than a symbol. It was part of an
assurance that represented something important about President Chen’s intentions
towards China. That assurance was important to Beijing and Washington. But names are
both a tool of assurance and a significant political resource within Taiwan domestic
politics. So when names become a domestic political issue, it creates a trade-off between
the cross-Strait and domestic dimensions.
Finally, I think it is unfortunate for Washington to repeat that it does not recognize
Taiwan as an independent state. That is statement is true when it comes to the U.S. view
about the international system. But to repeat it too often undercuts Taipei’s important
claim of sovereignty at the level of cross-Strait relations.
Dr. Christensen’s key point, therefore, is that, in the American view, the tensions in our
bilateral relations were the result of tactics that the DPP undertook to improve its political
position but that had the effect, in part because of the way the DPP interpreted the
implications of the referendum, of needlessly provoking Beijing and endangering Taiwan
and American security. Our response was consistent with our long-standing approach of
dual deterrence, where we warn Beijing not to use force against Taiwan and we warn
Taipei not to take political actions that might provoke China to use force (even as we
reassure it that we are not going to sell out its interests). From this point of view, our
foreign policy interests are in no way inconsistent with Taiwan’s democracy, as Mr. Koo
Kwan-min asserts. The key issue for Dr. Christensen is whether Taiwan’s leaders conduct
external policy and domestic politics with external implications in what Dr. Christensen
calls a “moderate” way.
A Tension Between Democracy and Security
Now you may think I have picked somewhat extreme positions to represent Taiwan and
American explanations of our current difficulties. Not all Taiwan people would associate
themselves with the views of Mr. Koo Kwan-min, and not all Americans would state the
U.S. government’s concerns about the current situation the way Dr. Christensen has.
A lot of Taiwan people might assert that the Taiwan initiatives to which the Bush
Administration objects are just a reaction to the PRC’s squeezing Taiwan in the
international community and that Taiwan needs to hold the UN referendum in order to
show the international community that it is not under the PRC. It is certainly true that
Beijing’s diplomats have been constraining Taiwan’s international space in a manner that
is at odds with its proclaimed goal of winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwan people,
and Americans would certainly agree that Beijing’s diplomatic activities and military
build-up are heavy-handed and counterproductive. But some Americans would also
suggest that although this squeezing activity began in the 1990s, it intensified
significantly after 2002 when Beijing became more alarmed about the Chen
Administration’s intentions and its capacity to achieve them. And they might suggest that
if the DPP’s goal with the referendum were to make a statement to the international
community, then there should be one referendum that reflected an inter-party consensus
on all issues rather than two referenda that exposed a major inter-party difference on two
Taiwan people might say that the initiatives that sour Beijing and bother Washington are
expressions of Taiwan identity and cannot―perhaps even should not―be stopped. We
are told that over two-thirds of those polled say they are Taiwanese, and that certain
policies must flow from that reality. On the other hand, I am aware that there is a debate
over how ethnic consciousness is measured, and that a legitimate case can be made for a
methodology that indicates that the share of people with an exclusively Taiwan identity is
no more than the share that has a mixed – Taiwan-Chinese – identity. If that is the case,
the policy implications are not so clear. Moreover, although identity can shape policy,
arguably it is not the only factor shaping policy.
Taiwan people might say that the institutions of indirect, representative democracy distort
the will of the people and that on Taiwan, those institutions are also fairly gridlocked.
Therefore, the institutions of direct democracy, like a referendum, are a better way to
reflect the public will. I agree that the institutions of indirect democracy can distort the
will of the people and that Taiwan’s democratic institutions need badly to be improved
and consolidated. I would also note that the experience in the United States with direct
democracy, particularly with referenda, shows that special interests can use them to
distort the will of the people as well.
So where do I come out on the current state of U.S.-Taiwan relations? I have felt for a
long time that there is an element missing in the discussion of U.S.-Taiwan relations.
Although our two countries are both democracies, we are also security partners. The
United States has provided a significant commitment to Taiwan’s defense, to the point
that it appears that China believes that Washington would intervene in any conflict.
Taiwan is dependent on the United States for access to advanced weapons systems.
Interaction between the American and Taiwan armed forces has expanded significantly in
the last several years, and Taiwan will be more secure as a result. The United States does
all this for four reasons: the political commitment in the Taiwan Relations Act; the
support and sympathy that Taiwan enjoys in the United States; our stake in preserving
peace and stability in the Western Pacific; and the need to protect American credibility in
East Asia and the world. It is more than fair to say that Taiwan would not enjoy in the
relatively positive position it has today without the support of the United States, which
we have provided at some political cost.
Now an alliance is a special form of security partnership, and scholars of international
relations tell us that the parties to any alliance will have a couple of fears. By analogy,
these same fears will exist in a security partnership that does not take treaty or even
official form, such as that between the United States and Taiwan. The first fear is that one
of the parties will abandon the other. That is, Party A will renege on its explicit or
implicit security commitment to Party B, and sometimes do so in order to secure benefits
from Party C, against which the alliance was directed in the first place.
The second fear that occurs among allies is that of entrapment. That is, Party B fears that
Party A will draw it into a conflict that Party B does not believe is in its interests. This is
fear is known as the problem of the tail wagging the dog. This should be familiar to
people who study U.S.-Taiwan relations. Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s Washington
worried that Chiang Kai-shek was trying to create situations that would give America no
choice but to aid him in his mission of fangong dalu.
I should make clear that these fears of abandonment or entrapment often do not have any
basis in fact. But they are stimulated in situations where one side lacks sufficient
information or trust in the other to allay these fears. Sometimes, on the other hand, the
fears are real. Whatever the case, a lot of time is spent in the management of security
partnerships on mutual reassurance. That is because fears of abandonment and
entrapment are very corrosive. They can undermine the shared interest on which the
security partnership is based.
A couple of other points. Managing these fears is harder when the adversary against
which the security partnership is directed is a rising power. That inevitably raises
differences between the partners about whether it is appropriate to accommodate the
adversary tactically in order to cope with it strategically. How to cope with Hitler before
1939 is a case in point.
Second, limiting fears of abandonment and entrapment is more difficult when the
adversary presents both opportunities and dangers. If the adversary presents only dangers,
life among security partners is easier. But if, as China does today, the adversary offers
substantial economic opportunities to both Taiwan and the United States as well as
posing some real or potential threats to the security of each, then it is harder to manage
our relations. One party is likely to emphasize opportunities over dangers and vice versa.
Complicating matters here is the fact that China contributes to some of America’s foreign
policy objectives but only obstructs Taiwan’s core foreign policy goal – to expand its
Finally, management of a security partnership becomes more complicated when the two
partners are democracies. How the two should meet the challenges and opportunities
posed by the potential adversary must be negotiated not just between the two
governments but between governments and publics. Leaders contending for power
domestically may raise issues that bear on the substance of the security partnership.
The security partnership between the United States and Taiwan has all of these
complicating factors. The potential adversary is a China that not only makes an essential
contribution to the economic well-being of both Taiwan and America but also shares
some significant foreign policy interests with the United States. It is also a rising power,
with all the problems of transition management that entails. And the United States and
Taiwan are democracies. In 2000, George W. Bush sought to a degree to politicize U.S.
Taiwan policy. The DPP sought to politicize identity and cross-Strait relations in 2002-
2004 and is doing so again in 2007, with implications for its relations with the United
States. In both cases, the expectations of the other party changed, and not for the better.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the U.S.-Taiwan security partnership should contain
fears of abandonment and entrapment. We should be surprised if it did not.
To put it differently, the fact that both the United States and Taiwan are democracies can
cut across and be in serious tension with the reality of their security partnership. What
happens within their respective political systems can affect the mutual expectations and
obligations of their security relationship. This was, I think, the dynamic at play that led to
President Bush’s remarks of December 2003, to Assistant Secretary of State James
Kelly’s testimony in April of 2004, to Secretary Powell’s statement in Beijing in October
2004, and to the statements of various U.S. officials this fall.
When, on the other hand, democracy and a defense partnership are mutually reinforcing,
security is promoted. Although Taiwan’s concern about abandonment is understandable,
since it is a structural feature of any security partnership, I do not believe that U.S. policy
in any way undermines Taiwan’s fundamental interests. That is true of the “one China”
policy, our economic engagement with the PRC, and our preference to cooperate on
foreign policy issues like North Korea. I do not believe that the best things that Taiwan
could do to improve its position in any way conflict with American security interests.
Some in Taiwan will disagree with me on what Taiwan should be doing to improve its
position. I happen to agree with Tom Christensen that frontal challenges by Taiwan to the
PRC’s hegemonic position in state-based international institutions are self-defeating and
leave Taiwan worse off, not better. Because Taiwan is at a disadvantage in the
international arena, it has to play smart, and that includes working with its best friend, the
Should Taiwan people love Taiwan? Of course they should. But they should understand,
as I know they do, that love of Taiwan should be accompanied a keen sense of self-
preservation. Should Taiwan people capitulate to China? Of course not. But they should
be wise and pragmatic in the ways they address the PRC challenge and remain open and
pragmatic to the opportunities that the Mainland has to offer. Should the United States
ignore the impulses of Taiwan’s democracy? Of course not. But Taiwan people in turn
need to perfect and consolidate their democracy so that it reflects well the aspirations of
the people – all the people, not just one faction. A consolidated democracy will also ease
the task of strengthening Taiwan in the various areas where it has unfortunately fallen
behind in the past few years.
Should the United States abandon “democratic Taiwan” for “communist China”? Of
course not. But Taiwan can do its part for its relationship with America by doing four
things. One: it can ensure that it possesses a sensible, credible, defense-based deterrent
against the PLA. Two: it can take into account U.S. equities as the leading guarantor of
peace and security in the entire East Asian region. Three: it can build greater consensus
with the United States on whether, when, and how to create the impression in Beijing that
the door to unification is closing, for Beijing remains calm as long as there is hope for the
future. And four: it can maintain good communication on doing One, Two, and Three.
As I have said, there will always be a certain amount of tension when two security
partners are also democracies. But if a security partnership is important, as I believe it is
in the case of the United States and Taiwan; and if our leaders can, based on mutual trust
and respect, take each other’s interests into account as they make their decisions, then
there is no reason why that tension should be high and drive us apart. Instead, the fact
that we are democracies and security partners will bring our countries together and work
to the benefit of our two peoples.