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Peter Tarnoff Memo to Zbigniew Brzezinski on Arms Sales to Taiwan, February 8, 1978

This memo was published in the History of the Foreign Relations of the United States. Tarnoff was Executive Secretary of the US Department of State to the National Security Advisor.

February 8, 1978

-- Marked Sensitive/Secret --


  • Transmittal of Joint State–Defense Memorandum on Arms Sales to the Republic of China

We forward herewith the attached memorandum on the subject of Arms Sales to the Republic of China. The memorandum was prepared jointly by the Departments of State and Defense in response to an informal request from the National Security Council. Although it sets forth in the introduction the general recommendations of the two Departments on the policy which we believe should govern weapons sales to the Republic of China in the context of our overall normalization policy, it does not provide specific recommendations with respect to the individual weapons systems discussed. It is intended that these specific weapons systems recommendations would emerge from a discussion meeting, to be chaired by NSC and would then be forwarded to you in a supplementary paper.

Peter Tarnoff


Joint Memorandum Prepared in the Departments of State and Defense


  • Arms Sales To the Republic of China

I. Introduction

This paper addresses the question of arms sales to the Republic of China within the framework of a policy of affording the ROC “limited access to new weapons”. Within the context of avoiding serious complications in our relations with Peking, the paper is based on the premise that we will approve sales to the ROC of new military equipment and technology so long as it is essentially defensive in nature and its provision:

—does not, in our best judgment, pose a serious threat to our normalization policy with Peking;

—does not distort the military balance in the Taiwan Strait;

—does not contribute to the ROC’s nuclear, long-range/intermediate missile, or chemical warfare development programs;

—is consistent with the President’s policy on arms transfers.

The paper attempts to evaluate pending ROC requests for the purchase of U.S. military equipment in the light of these considerations and with the objective of helping the ROC maintain a reasonably high cost-inflicting defense capability against the PRC. We would be prepared to risk some PRC displeasure over our actions in the arms supply area, but would continue to give high priority to avoiding serious problems in our relations with Peking.

ROC and PRC Views.

The ROC leadership recognizes that political factors—the PRC’s stake in good relations with the U.S. and Japan, and continuing Sino-Soviet tension—are increasingly important elements in stability in the Taiwan Straits area. But for the foreseeable future most in the ROC will continue to believe that the island’s survival depends upon maintaining a credible military deterrent. Taiwan hopes that political factors in the U.S. will delay full normalization of relations with Peking, and force the U.S. to continue to guarantee the island’s security even after normalization. The ROC, at the same time, has attempted to expand its own arms production, develop new weapons systems and find non-U.S. sources of supply. A recent U.S. intelligence memorandum concluded, however, that for the foreseeable future, the ROC will be dependent on the U.S. as its source of modern weapons and that Taiwan’s self-defense capability will continue to be linked to its ability to buy arms from the U.S.

For Peking, continuation of U.S. arms supply to Taiwan, however distasteful, is only one factor in a complicated equation. Pending normalization, there are some indications that Peking views our existing relationship to Taiwan as a deterrent to Taipei’s looking elsewhere for support, or seeking unilaterally to alter the island’s status. It is far from certain, however, that Peking would establish full diplomatic relations with the U.S. on terms which included continuation of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. At a minimum, Peking could be expected to oppose U.S. military support at a level which might cause the ROC leadership to conclude it was invulnerable to pressure.

Implications for the U.S.

There is inter-agency unanimity in the view that serious PRCROC fighting in the Taiwan area would be highly damaging to U.S. policy interests; and agreement as well that serious political or social instability on Taiwan would greatly complicate the normalization process. Maintenance of a credible military deterrent in the ROC not only works to preserve military stability in the area but also provides the sense of psychological confidence on Taiwan which helps to protect against potential political instability on the island.

Consistent with the broad policy framework laid out above, the U.S. should continue to maintain a balance between accommodating both PRC sensitivities and the ROC’s need to be confident in its security, and should do so in the following ways:

—Continue to consider ROC military requests on a case-by-case basis.

—Avoid, as far as possible, periods of massive arms flow alternating with periods of unresponsiveness to ROC requests. Instead, communicate responses, whether positive or negative, in timely fashion employing as criteria the President’s arms transfer policy, interpreted in the light of our overall normalization policy, and the importance to us of a credible military deterrent in ROC hands.

—Avoid, as unhelpful to our dealings with both Peking and Taipei, major variations in the flow of arms to Taiwan. This would be particularly true at the time that normalization approaches, when we would want to avoid an “Enhance Plus” arrangement.4 Accordingly, deliveries should be scheduled in a way that presents an image of steady but modest flow, and of U.S. restraint.

[Omitted here are Section II on aircraft and air defense related items, Section III on naval related items, and Section IV on land armaments.]

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