On April 10, 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) into law. This year marked the 38th anniversary of this extraordinary domestic law, which was enacted to legally govern the informal relationship between the United States and Taiwan, following the normalization of relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). After 38 years, it is easy to take for granted the considerable debate between the executive branch—which wanted to honor its commitments to the PRC—and the legislative branch—which wanted to maintain US relations with Taiwan and its people—that went into passing the Act. Yet, the critical role that the TRA continues to play, as the cornerstone of managing relations between the United States and Taiwan, calls for a closer examination of the considerations that led to its enactment, and more importantly, their application to the circumstances in which the relationship exists today nearly four decades later.
Indeed, a fierce debate followed the short notice that the Carter administration provided to Congress of the imminent end in diplomatic relations with Taiwan. While it should be noted that the administration’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC was widely accepted by lawmakers as necessary, two major sticking points emerged concerning the questions of “officiality” and US security commitments to Taiwan. The executive branch had its own idea for maintaining informal relations with Taiwan, and the Carter administration submitted a barebones piece of legislation called the Taiwan Enabling Act (TEA). The TEA, which was met with stiff resistance from Congress, was referred to by members of Congress as “woefully inadequate to the task” and “too weak a statement to fulfill the need of the people of Taiwan.”
Of these two aforementioned issues, the Carter administration pushed back most strongly against several lawmakers’ proposal to upgrade the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) to an “official liaison office,” but ultimately relented in Congressional demands that the Act provide more security commitments to Taiwan. The resistance from the executive branch was largely motivated by the administration’s fear that such measures would exceed the understanding reached under the US-PRC Second Communiqué.” The compromise legislation became known as the Taiwan Relations Act. President Carter ultimately signed the TRA despite the reservations of his close advisers. For 38 years, the TRA has remained the guideline for successive presidents to interpret and implement the United States’ obligations to and relations with Taiwan.
In this special issue of the Global Taiwan Brief celebrating the 38th anniversary of the TRA, we asked three members of GTI’s advisory board to provide their personal assessments of the legislation’s bandwidth and durability. Ambassador Stephen Young’s article reflects on his time as a young foreign service officer in AIT’s office in Taipei implementing the TRA. Longtime Asia specialist Shirley Kan invokes Ronald Reagan’s example in interpreting the TRA and its applications for today. Former State Department official John Tkacik unpacks the US “One China” enigma and weighs its authority against the TRA. Each of these firsthand observations about the TRA’s application over time stands as a testament to its significance in maintaining the delicate-yet-evolving relationship between the United States, Taiwan, and China.
Indeed, Taiwan policy does not exist in a vacuum: the US normalization of relations with the PRC established a bilateral relationship, with obligations for both sides, which raises the question of whether Beijing has held up its end of the deal. The US president has substantial discretion to interpret and implement law, and a core connotation in the legislative mandate of the TRA is that the Taiwan question be resolved by peaceful means. As former Congressman Lester Wolff (D-NY), who served as a principal author of the TRA, wrote recently: the “[TRA] states that the status of Taiwan should be determined by peaceful means, and that nonpeaceful means to do so are a threat to the region and of grave concern to the United States.” Yet, Beijing’s continued refusal to renounce the use of force and its systematic military build-up are straining the military balance, and jeopardizing peace and stability in the Western Pacific.
Congressman Wolff was right when he wrote, “In every sense, the TRA and the relationship that has been built upon it have been successful.” Yet a law is only as effective as its implementation. Indeed, it depends on executive leadership to ensure that its legislative intent is fulfilled. The global geopolitical environment has changed considerably since 1979: while the United States and Taiwan could have afforded to give Beijing the benefit of the doubt concerning the intent and capabilities of the PRC, continuing to do so would militate against the mounting evidence of a growing military imbalance and ignore the remarkable achievements of Taiwan’s democracy.
The main point: The TRA, despite its many faults, has been hugely successful. But a law is only as good as the paper it is printed on unless it is properly implemented. Indeed, the president has substantial discretion to interpret and implement law, and it depends on strong executive leadership to ensure that its true legislative intent is fulfilled.
 Lung-chu Chen, The U.S.-Taiwan-China Relationship in International Law and Policy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) 105.
 Chen, The U.S.-Taiwan-China Relationship, 106.
 For a comprehensive primer on the US “One China” policy, please refer to former AIT Chairman Richard Bush’s “A One-China Policy Primer” at https://www.brookings.edu/research/a-one-china-policy-primer/.
 Chen, The U.S.-Taiwan-China Relationship, 106-107 (referring to the arguments put forward by Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Secretary of Defense Harold Brown about how the PRC was unlikely to use force against Taiwan because Beijing relied on the United States to modernize and because of the Sino-Soviet split).