Taiwan Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

Taiwan is a nation in Eastern Asia. Its capital city is Taipei. Taiwan’s situation is unique in the world. The Republic of China, as it is officially called, is recognized by only a few small states in the Pacific, Latin America and Africa. They thereby receive extensive assistance from Taiwan, and refrain from having relations with the People’s Republic of China. No country can simultaneously recognize and maintain official relations with both Beijing and Taipei.

Taiwan Defense and Foreign Policy

In practice, Taiwan acts as an independent country, with its own territory, its own government and its own unofficial foreign relations. Dozens of countries have representation in Taiwan, despite the lack of diplomatic recognition.

The Taiwan government – which until 2000 was constituted by the Nationalist Party Kuomintang – considered, like Beijing, that there was only one China, which includes Taiwan. But from Taiwanese point of view this China was the Republic of China with its 1947 Constitution and not the Communist-led People’s Republic.

However, the Democratic Party (DPP) has wanted to see Taiwan as independent and independent from the mainland. DPP President Chen Shui-bian’s distinctive independence policy (2000-2008) caused Taipei and Beijing to collide.

When Kuomintang returned to power, then President Ma Ying-jeou’s goal was to maintain the status quo in relation to China based on the promise “no independence, no reunification, no war”. However, the increased cooperation across the Taiwan Strait was based on continued agreement between the parties that there is only “one China” – but understood that there are different interpretations of what this means in Beijing and Taipei respectively. Beijing’s hope was that economic cooperation would lead to political rapprochement, which in turn would make the Taiwanese more positive to a reunification.

Diplomatic truce

In 2008, China and Taiwan agreed on a “diplomatic cease-fire” which meant that they would not try to steal each other’s diplomatic allies. When China allowed Taiwan to participate with observer status at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual meeting in 2009, it was a sign that new winds were blowing. Taiwan had long been completely excluded from the UN and its many sub-bodies. Since the early 1990s, Taiwan has repeatedly sought membership in the UN alongside China, with no results.

In the spring of 2017, however, the wind had returned. For the first time since 2009, Taiwan was not invited to attend the WHO Annual Meeting, which was because relations had deteriorated with Beijing since Tsai Ing-wen took over the 2016 presidential post (see below). In 2018, too, Taiwan was left outside the WHO meeting, despite intensive lobbying by the Tsai government.

Most Taiwanese are aware that neither reunification nor formal international recognition of Taiwan as an independent state is realistic or even desirable in a short-term perspective. If Taiwan were to declare independence, there is a clear risk that China would attack militarily. And if Taiwan were to agree to the form of reunification with the People’s Republic of China that applies to Hong Kong and that Beijing also advocates for Taiwan – under the formula “one country, two systems” – sooner or later it would mean a loss of actual sovereignty, and probably also the democratic freedoms.

The development of relations with Beijing

For close to 40 years everything connected with the mainland was forbidden. From the late 1980s, family visits as well as business, science and journalism trips were first allowed. Then direct mail and telephone connections were established. In 1990, the locks for mass tourism from Taiwan to the mainland were opened, and the following year the plan to formally recapture China was withdrawn. The trade, which was for a long time forbidden, but which was still conducted through middlemen mainly Hong Kong, was now completely open. In 1992, the governments established contact with each other through special semi-official organizations with high status that maintained relations over the Taiwan Strait.

The cautious opening was temporarily interrupted between 1995 and 1996, when a serious crisis in the Taiwan Strait reminded the outside world of the fundamental contradictions between China and Taiwan. The trigger was President Lee Teng-ho’s private visit to the United States in June 1995. Lee was considered too independent of Beijing. China conducted a series of demonstrative military exercises in the mainland-Taiwan strait.

The crisis gradually faded and when China returned to Hong Kong in 1997, Beijing reiterated its offer to apply the Hong Kong formula “one country, two systems” even in the case of Taiwan. However, the Taipei government emphasized that a reunion required a stable democracy with a functioning market economy on the mainland.

When Chen Shui-bian and DPP took power in 2000, relations with the mainland became more strained (see Modern History). In 2005, China passed a law that formally gave the country the right to take military means if Taiwan tried to declare its independence.

The approach to China

But despite the confrontations, cooperation was expanded across the strait. In 2005, the parties agreed to allow direct flights between China and Taiwan, for the first time since the end of the war in 1949.

The change of government in 2008, when Kuomintang returned to power, marked the beginning of a fast approach between Taiwan and China. A large number of agreements were entered into, among other things, airline connections were greatly expanded and investments across the strait grew. China sent panda bears to a zoo in Taipei, in a gesture of deep symbolic value, and in 2010, China and Taiwan signed a trade agreement, which in media was described as “historic” (see Foreign Trade).

In early 2014, the first official government-level talks between China and Taiwan were held since 1949 and in the fall of 2015, the presidents of China and Taiwan met for the first time in Singapore.

Tense position after change of power

After the change of power in Taiwan in January 2016, the climate between China and Taiwan became immediately cooler. DPP party leader Tsai Ing-wen said when she took office as president in May 2016 that she wanted a “positive dialogue” with the Chinese government. But she also stressed the importance of preserving Taiwan’s democracy and freedom, which was hardly appreciated by the Chinese leadership. Beijing highlighted its dissatisfaction with the new Taiwanese leadership by suspending official contacts with Taipei from the summer of 2016, while also beginning to counter Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and conferences. The main reason for Beijing’s dissatisfaction with Tsai Ing-wen has been her refusal to express her support for the one-China agreement.

Subsequently, the tension between Beijing and Taipei has increased. Beijing for a diplomatic war to isolate Taiwan, not least with the help of the wallet, which has led countries, which previously had official relations with Taiwan, terminated contact with Taipei to cultivate relations with the People’s Republic instead. In addition, Beijing has demanded that other countries send suspected Taiwanese to the People’s Republic instead of Taiwan and airlines, hotels, international clothing companies and others have been pressured not to list Taiwan as their own country outside China.

The security situation has also deteriorated and some observers again warn of the risk of a military conflict. China has conducted several military exercises near Taiwan and the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning has traveled in the Taiwan Strait. Beijing’s military demonstrations of power have, in turn, been met by military exercises from Taiwan and planned defense efforts.

Assessors have wondered how long Beijing is prepared to wait to achieve its reunification goal. The threat of military action remains. China has around 1,200 robots targeting Taiwan and has focused on extensive military armaments throughout the 2000s.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned Taiwan to act for independence, which would face a penalty “of historical proportions” and said it will not leave it to future generations to solve the Taiwan problem.

Relations with the United States

Until 1971, Taiwan was represented in the UN but was then forced to give up its place in the World Organization for the benefit of the People’s Republic of China. Most countries broke ties with the Taipei government at the same time, but its most important friend and ally, the United States, remained on Taiwan’s side for a few more years. However, in 1978, Washington also ended the diplomatic relations with Taipei and recognized the following year the People’s Republic of China. Despite this, ties between Taiwan and the United States remained strong. The US Embassy in Taiwan was replaced by the “American Institute”, which essentially functions in the same way, but lacks official status. Washington has been careful to highlight that hostile actions against Taiwan would be “a matter of concern” for the United States – without directly saying what that would mean. The United States has called on both Taipei and Beijing not to jeopardize the relative stability that currently exists. However, as China-US relations are strained by trade conflicts, China’s growing regional power and territorial claims in the South China Sea, concerns have increased in Taiwan for it to become a chip in a diplomatic game between the major powers.

Since the reciprocal security pact with the United States expired in 1979, Taiwan has been outside all military alliances but maintained close contact with the United States. The US Congress passed a special “Taiwan law” in 1979 that guarantees Taiwan’s security and continued arms supplies. The protests from China have been loud as the US conducted arms sales to Taiwan. The reactions in Beijing are considered by analysts to be one of the reasons why the US did not want to sell over-advanced weapons to Taiwan.

In connection with the US taking a more confrontational line with China under President Donald Trump towards the end of the 2010, Washington quickly approved two sales of military equipment – summer 2017 and autumn 2018 – to Taiwan. The business was heavily criticized by China.

Relations with Asian neighbors

Taiwan has a network of trade offices, cultural institutes, aviation and shipping offices and similar establishments abroad and is active in various forms of economic cooperation around the Pacific, such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the economic cooperation body Apec.

Taiwan, like China, is involved in border disputes in the South and East China Sea with other countries in the region. However, in the spring of 2013, Taiwan and Japan found a way to deal with tensions around the Senkaku archipelago (called Diaoyutai in Taiwan) when an agreement was reached that Taiwanese fishing boats would be allowed to fish near the archipelago controlled by Japan. The initiative could be interpreted as a way for the Taipei government to assert Taiwan’s position as an independent, separate actor. The fisheries agreement was sharply criticized by Beijing.

Taiwan wants a modern defense with a smaller, efficient military and well-functioning weapons technology. But the weak economic development in the 2010s has meant that the government has not reached the goal that defense spending should amount to 3 percent of GDP.

The goal is to withstand attacks from the militarily significantly stronger China long enough for the US to come to the rescue and for an invasion to have a high enough price to deter it.


Army: 130 000 men (2017)

The air Force: 45,000 men (2017)

The fleet: 40,000 men (2017)