Deterring China’s attempt to coerce Taiwan into unification with the mainland through military force has been United States policy for five decades The success of that policy has rested on Taiwan’s willingness to maintain a robust self-defense capability and, in turn, on America’s retaining the ability to project military power quickly and decisively into the region in a time of crisis. To support this policy, the Pentagon assists Taiwan through a program of arms sales, in developing a modern military force, and by investing in our own capabilities to meet Chinese aggression.
As important as these measures are, neither Taiwan nor the United States is getting its money’s worth because of the unnecessary restrictions placed on our military-to-military ties with Taiwan. In some cases these restrictions are just petty, such as requiring Taiwanese military personnel to wear civilian clothes when they train in the United States, or forbidding Taiwanese pilots from wearing name badges on their flight suits during U.S. training. In other cases, they are far more serious and debilitating. Chief among these cases is the self-imposed prohibition on trips by U.S. generals, admirals, and senior defense officials to Taiwan.
In order to develop an appreciation for Taiwan’s specific military needs and, in turn, to spell those needs out to America’s civilian policymakers, U.S. generals and flag officers have to be able to visit Taiwan and see its military in action. Although visits by expert teams of U.S. captains and colonels to Taiwan can and do help, these lower-ranking American military officers lack the authority and the “joint” command experience of general officers necessary to have an effective exchange with Taiwan’s senior military leaders. And, back home, anyone familiar with the ways of Washington knows that having a well-informed general or admiral make a case for a new initiative is vital if it is to be given a respectful hearing by senior military and civilian decision-makers.
Similarly, it is difficult for Taipei and Washington to discuss contingency responses to possible Chinese aggression when U.S. generals and flag officers are not able to meet regularly with their Taiwanese counterparts. Again, colonels and captains can talk about a lot of things, but only the most senior officers can really push their respective institutions to be forthright about what they can and cannot do, and to take whatever steps are necessary to fix holes in those plans. Failing this, too much uncertainty can creep into our contingency planning and, in turn, create doubts about our actual ability to deter Chinese aggression.
Should deterrence fail and conflict erupt in the Taiwan Strait, we currently face the prospect of managing an ad hoc coalition. Senior officers from Taiwan and the United States will have had little opportunity to discuss routinely and in depth how to fight together. The mid-career officers who are currently the backbone of professional-service relationships with Taiwan cannot be expected to make strategic decisions with the full confidence of their governments during wartime. A general officer tasked with executing a contingency plan would benefit greatly from familiarizing himself with Taiwan’s command centers, terrain, and operational capabilities. Indeed, one only has to think back to the difficulties the American military had operating with its key NATO allies–with whom they had trained and held high-level exchanges for years–in Kosovo to realize just how difficult a situation we might face in the case of a military conflict in the Strait. The cost of the current restrictions could come at a high price, then: diminished American military effectiveness and, potentially, increased loss of American lives in combat.
Although China will object to allowing U.S. general and flag officers in Taiwan, the proposal would not violate the existing American policy toward China and Taiwan. The current restrictions on visits to Taiwan by general officers are based on “guidelines” issued by the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian Affairs in 1979 following the Carter administration’s decision to end formal relations with Taiwan and establish them with Communist China. But the restrictions were not part of any formal agreement with China, nor was it in response to any particular demand by Beijing. In short, this is a self-imposed proscription which has not been properly reexamined in light of either America’s obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act or the growth of a much more capable Chinese military force. Indeed, permitting U.S. generals and flag officers to visit Taiwan would reaffirm the essentials of America’s one-China policy: While the United States does not endorse any specific political outcome on unification, it is also committed to preventing the mainland from attempts to annex the island by force.
The American policy of deterring Beijing from using military force against Taiwan and reassuring Taipei in its dealings with the mainland has facilitated peace and great cross-straits economic growth for decades. But it is a policy that is increasingly put in jeopardy by the ongoing development of China’s military power. Removing an outdated restriction on defense cooperation with Taiwan is a sensible step to take now in light of this new threat. The idea that generals and admirals can travel to China, Libya, and Uzbekistan but not Taiwan is a restriction that is not only ridiculous on its face but, increasingly, dangerous to the very men and women who will be asked to risk their lives should deterrence fail.
–Gary Schmitt is executive director of the Project for the New American Century. Dan Blumenthal is resident fellow in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and former senior director for China, Taiwan, Hong, and Mongolia in the office of the Secretary of Defense.