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20 Years Later: Reevaluating the Taiwan Policy Review

By: Annabel Virella |

In 1994, the Clinton Administration completed a comprehensive interagency review of U.S. policy toward Taiwan (the Republic of China, ROC), the first of its kind launched by an administration since the U.S. shifted official diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 1979. This review resulted in important policy adjustments more in line with U.S. national security interests. The Taiwan Policy Review (TPR) was the most significant development in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship and the first review of policy since the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which governs nearly every aspect of U.S. foreign policy toward Taiwan. The TPR sought to clarify ambiguities in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship by simplifying U.S.-Taiwan interactions. Moreover, it sought to strengthen unofficial relations with Taiwan without disrupting official relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). However, both China and Taiwan remained tepid about the TPR’s reception because of its prolonged implementation process that dragged on for over a year. With the backdrop of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, and China’s provocative weapons sales to Iran and Pakistan, the TPR received immense congressional pressure and became a high-profile issue. 

The TPR resulted in several principal changes to the dynamics of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. For one, Taiwan’s top leaders obtained permission to transit the U.S. under approved conditions, and U.S. officials could meet with Taiwan’s president, vice president, and foreign ministers in their offices. In addition, the TPR authorized cabinet-level exchanges on economic and technical issues, as well as U.S. advocacy of ROC membership into international organizations, provided statehood was not a precondition for membership. Taiwan has since become increasingly active inmultilateral organizations such as the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank (WB), as a member or observer nation. 

Well past its 20th anniversary, the TPR, in hindsight, has significantly improved U.S.-Taiwan relations and the overall dynamics of trilateral relations in cross-Strait affairs. However, balancing the U.S. position in cross-Strait relations is a delicate task; the potential for rapid diplomatic deterioration remains, as current relations among the trilateral parties continue to be fraught with hazards, misunderstandings, and distrust. Therefore, in response to the changes in the security, political, and economic environment across the Strait, a new Taiwan Policy Review should be considered and conducted by the Trump administration.  

The Necessity of a New TPR  

Significant international and domestic developments beckon a reevaluation of the TPR’s necessity in the modern context. First, the parameters of the 1994 TPR did not appreciate Taiwan as the full-fledged democracy seen today. U.S.-Taiwan protocol is outdated and disjointed, which is a liability for continued stability across the Strait. Second, all three parties have undergone significant leadership transitions and have re-prioritized their national interests. A Taiwan policy irrespective of such changes, and one that is unreasonably restricted in terms of diplomatic communication and contact with Taiwan under TRA and TPR protocol, significantly impairs the pursuit of U.S. interests in the region. 

The Clinton administration drafted and implemented the TPR before Taiwan—a key geostrategic ally—had become the most liberal nation in Asia and a driver of the world economy. Irrespective of these changes, the U.S. One-China policy and protocol towards Taiwan in years since have regressed to eschew backlash from Beijing. 

The TPR had originally called for further U.S. advocacy of Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. Yet, despite attempts by Congress to legislaterequirements for U.S. support of Taiwan’s multilateral organization applications (i.e. INTERPOL), the U.S. has arguably failed to make a difference for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations. 

Regarding the necessity of assisting Taiwan’s defense requirements, the U.S. hasrepeatedly failed to treat Taiwan like a normal Foreign Military Sales (FMS) partner. From 2006 to 2008, the U.S. refused to accept Taiwan’s Letters of Requests (LORs) for the purchase of 66 F-16 C/D fighter jets on three separate occasions. This is essentially comparable to refusing a diplomatic note, which is the highest form of diplomatic disrespect. Arms sales requests from Taiwan, in the latter years of the George W. Bush administration and throughout the Obama administration, were regularly rejected and arms sales notifications were frozen. According to post-1996 Strait Crisis policy, political calculations were made to prefer bundled notifications to Congress as opposed to normal notifications processes (later implemented in 2001). This hindered Taiwan’s defense modernization. Meanwhile, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continued rapid development of its military into a professional and lethal fighting force looming over Taiwan. Evidently, the U.S. no longer adheres to the full spirit and protocol of Clinton’s TPR. Thus, a revised policy framework is necessary to re-align U.S. interests. Without adequate TPR revision, Taiwan policy will continue to teeter on an unstable foundation riddled with liabilities impacting the future of cross-Strait relations. 

Leadership Transitions and Implications 

The PRC, ROC, and the U.S. have experienced significant leadership transitions since the TPR’s inception. Maintaining its one-party dominance, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has experienced a notable shift from soft power politics under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao to hard power politics under the current incumbent Xi Jinping, who was recently named ‘Core’ Leader and may be considering a third term. General Secretary Xi Jinping has deliberately destabilized cross-Strait relations with his political and psychological warfare against Taiwan, relentless military developments in the South China Sea, and strategic economic and diplomatic suffocation of Taiwan. Xi has prioritized resolution of the Taiwan issue in his policy agenda, which is reflected in China’s military expansion and modernization. Because Taiwan is a political priority, the PLA continues itsacquisition of the necessary capabilities for invasion (e.g. advanced missile technology, increased joint-operations command and control, psychological warfare influence operations, etc.).

On Taiwan, prior to democratization, the Kuomintang (KMT) Nationalist Party enjoyed nearly half a century of uninterrupted rule. Yet since 1996, Taiwan has experienced three peaceful power transitions between the conservative KMT and the liberal Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Following the landslide victory of DPP President Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, tensions have risen as the CCP attempts to shift the blame and delegitimize Tsai by attacking her image, depreciating her approval rating, and labeling her the “troublemaker” in cross-Strait affairs. President Tsai hasexpressed her willingness to negotiate with Beijing, but the CCP has insisted on imposing acceptance of its one-sided political framework as precondition to cooperation. Xi’s agenda concentrates resources on authoritative reunification, whereas Tsai prioritizes resolution of domestic economic and labor issues. Tsai has attempted to counter Chinese diplomatic coercion with overtures to India, Latin America, and the U.S., but PRC coercion of Taiwan’s remaining allies continues to threaten Taiwan’s survival and limits her autonomy.    

Following a controversial election, Donald J. Trump became the 45th president of the United States, usurping eight years of political control from the Democratic Party. Traditionally, shifts in party domination almost guarantee new policy reviews. The shift to Republican domination of all branches of government, therefore, implies more fluidity in the policy reassessment, revision, or revocation process. President Trump has already abandoned the Obama administration’s predictively passive approach to U.S.-China affairs, first breaking precedent as president-elect with theTsai-Trump phone call and then delaying U.S. acknowledgement of the U.S. One-China policy until a month into his presidency. Although Trump’s controversial actions and rhetoric may appear ill-advised and diplomatically reckless, he thus-far continues a proactive policy approach in pursuing U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. For instance, President Trump has reaffirmed Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and has positioned the U.S. for further cooperation with its regional allies in anticipation of a possible long-term competitive relationship with China. U.S. Navy and Pacific Command leaders already plan to confront China’s maritime assertiveness via freedom of navigation operations, pending approval of the new commander-in-chief. In addition, PACOM Commander Harry Harris has outlined his goal to integrate PACOM forces and create more options and capabilities for commanders to maintain U.S. naval dominance in the Pacific. By relying on unpredictability as the crux of U.S. foreign policy, Trump’s administration has cleverly forced the CCP on the defensive, reacting to any U.S.-induced changes to the status quo. However, on the diplomatic front, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appeared to have conceded to Xi Jinping during his March visit to Beijing, where he echoed CCP framing such as “mutual respect” for core interests and “win-win” cooperation. The upcoming Trump-Xi meeting at Mar-a-Lago will provide Trump and Xi with the opportunity to reassert their positions and vie for influence over each other in the bilateral relationship.   


Publicity, a key feature of the 1994 TPR, has been noticeably absent from any current Taiwan policy reviews presumably underway. Trump’s policy advisers would be wise to eschew media attention that is likely to draw foreign pressure and result in similar implementation blunders that encumbered the Clinton administration. Before significantly altering sensitive policy that has grudgingly maintained peace across the Strait, Trump’s team must realize that the stability of U.S.-China politics relies on formal written components of the relationship, outlined in the TRA and TPR, in addition to implicit understandings and unspoken agreements. Ambiguous protocol guiding U.S. interactions with Taiwan or lack thereof increases the margin for error. Over time, small discrepancies from unpopular, unreasonable, and unnecessary measures such as unjustified procedural changes on LOR submissions, or diplomats confused about official terminology and permitted interaction, can add up to over-complicate and burden U.S.-Taiwan affairs. Domestic developments and shifting dynamics in trilateral relations have resulted in U.S. foreign policy that is more coherent toward adversaries like China and North Korea than Taiwan, a full-fledged democratic ally. 

Policy reviewers must focus on how the U.S. can move closer to more normal relations with governments on both sides of the strait over the long term, within the current U.S. One-China policy framework. First, they should consider what is lacking from the U.S.-Taiwan relationship (e.g. high-level consultations on people-to-people exchange, senior level visits, and large bilateral military exercises) and then determine why. Most issues probably stem from the 1972 Shanghai Communiqué, an outdated, short-term solution to a long-term problem. The Communiqué is far from absolute and the U.S. must eventually prepare to renegotiate with the PRC and ROC. However, a precondition of this negotiation should be for both sides to come to the negotiating table as equals. The U.S. must balance legitimacy independently from recognition of sovereignty and should adhere to the Wilsonian ideal of equality of all states. Regardless of foreign recognition, Taiwan has proven itself a nation ruled by self-determination. In an age where the erosion of democracy has become a global trend, the U.S., at the very least, should appreciate Taiwan’s democratic existence. Failure to adjust policy to reflect the current dynamics of trilateral relations will only encourage tensions to boil. Given the current trajectory, it is only a matter of time before conflict erupts in Asia with Taiwan as its flashpoint.

Annabel Virella is an Intern at The Project 2049 Institute. She is a Master’s candidate at The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University where she studies Politics and Policy of East Asia. The author would like to thank Mark Stokes and Rachael Burton for their contributions.