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“Returning American Troops to Taiwan Will Only Entrap the US”

Oct 20, 2020
  • Dennis V. Hickey

    James F. Morris Endowed Professor of Political Science, Missouri State University

There appears to be no shortage of proposals to fundamentally change America’s longstanding policy toward the Republic of China (Taiwan). While some call for Washington to reduce its support for Taipei, proposals calling for an increase in US backing for Taiwan are much more pronounced. 

It is encouraging to hear new voices contribute to the conversation on Taiwan policy.  But some suggestions require more thought.  A case in point is Captain Walker D. Mills’ article in Military Review entitled, “Deterring the Dragon: Returning US Forces to Taiwan.” The author argues that, “if the US wants to maintain a credible, conventional deterrence against a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attack on Taiwan, it needs to consider basing troops in Taiwan.”  The proposal merits scrutiny.

The first thing to consider is how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would respond to this initiative.  Mills concedes that Beijing will view stationing US troops in Taiwan as “an escalatory move” that would “likely have other impacts in US foreign policy beyond Taiwan.”  This is an understatement. In order to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1979, the US agreed to the PRC’s three longstanding conditions for normalization—the termination of formal diplomatic relations with the ROC, the abrogation of the 1954 Mutual Defense Treaty, and removal of all US troops from Taiwan.  Returning US forces to Taiwan will likely lead to a break in diplomatic relations and cause an earthquake in international affairs.  Rather than deter the PLA, the misstep will probably trigger a cataclysmic conflict.  As the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) explained, if the US follows this “crazy suggestion,” then “the PLA would take resolute military action.”

A second fact to consider is that US-Taiwan military relations are closer than Mills seems to realize.  He claims that US “arms sales are the only real demonstration of the US commitment to Taiwanese defense.”  This is incorrect; security ties are not limited to arms sales.  Beginning in the 1990s, US and Taiwan defense officials began to hold regular meetings on national security concerns.  Moreover, American military teams have been quietly dispatched to Taiwan to assess the island’s military capabilities and observe military exercises, while Taiwan’s F-16 fighter pilots receive training in Arizona and Taiwanese attend US military academies.  And the two sides have boosted defense cooperation in other ways.  For example, a defense hot line has been established, an active duty defense attaché has been assigned to the AIT, and ever since 2003 Taiwan has been designated as a “major non-NATO ally” by the US Department of State.  Interestingly, the two sides reportedly engage in intelligence sharing operations. Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that the US has long insisted that any resolution of the Taiwan issue must be settled peacefully by the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.[1]

A third consideration is the fact that Taiwan’s government is not requesting US troops.  The present leadership in Taiwan has long claimed its intention to “maintain the status quo.”  Although it has never clearly defined the meaning of this slogan, it doesn’t include the return of US military bases.   As Lo Chih-cheng, a lawmaker from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) politely explained, “modern warfare” does not require the presence of American troops to act as a deterrent. He added “the military performance of the US military in this place is already very clear. That is to say, China cannot be allowed to undermine the stability and security of any region here.”

Money is yet another consideration.  Despite decades of US pressure, Taiwan has failed to raise its defense budget to 3 percent of GDP.  As Colonel Grant Newsham (USMC, ret.) lamented, “it’s fair to say Taiwan’s defense spending hasn’t moved much while the PRC military threat has grown exponentially.” Even if one includes the purchase of new F-16V warplanes, the island’s 2021 defense budget will only be 2.4% of its GDP. Given this situation, host nation support will likely emerge as a contentious bilateral issue.  How much does Mills think Taiwan might be willing to pay to cover the cost of stationing US forces in Taiwan—troops it has not requested?

Finally, Mills concedes that his proposal will likely confront “domestic pressure at home and international pressure abroad.” To state it succinctly, no sensible person wants to have a war with China—and stationing troops in Taiwan will likely trigger such a conflict. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has been polling Americans on the use of US troops to defend Taiwan since 1982.  The most recent poll (2019) shows that only 35% would support military action to defend the island.  Moreover, the US could not count on any assistance from its friends or allies.

In summary, there appears to be no shortage of proposals to fundamentally change US policy toward Taiwan. From time to time, some modest adjustments in policy may be warranted. But the problem with many of these schemes is that they hold the potential to unintentionally complicate matters.  Basing US troops in Taiwan is unwise, unnecessary and unpopular.  Rather than deter PRC aggression, it would likely entrap the US in a major conflict. 

[1]See Dennis V. Hickey, “America's Two Point Policy and the Future of Taiwan,” Asian Survey, Vol.XXVIII, No.8, August, 1988, pp. pp. 881-896.

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