The TRA at 38: What Would Reagan Do?

The TRA at 38: What Would Reagan Do?

The TRA at 38: What Would Reagan Do?

This month is not the time to note with platitudes another symbolic anniversary of the enactment on April 10, 1979, of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) as Public Law 96-8. The Trump administration offers an opportunity for substantive action in US policy on Taiwan in the interests of international security, democratic values, and economic growth. Since November, expectations that arose during the transition and Administration’s first months have not yet been met with results. There is a parallel with Ronald Reagan, who entered office raising questions about the US “One-China” policy with pro-Taiwan remarks that cited its official name of Republic of China (ROC), but then issued the third US Joint Communiqué with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1982. Likewise, Donald Trump elevated expectations concerning Taiwan and then caused uncertainty, with countervailing comments and no major actions.  Though early in the Administration’s first 100 days, a Trump-Xi summit already occurred which made Taiwan feel more insecure even before new key officials would replace Obama administration holdovers. Optimistically, what would Reagan do?

First, articulate principles with clear understanding to direct firm policies. Last December 11, Trump told Fox News Sunday, “I fully understand the ‘One-China’ policy, but I don’t know why we have to be bound by a ‘One-China’ policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.” Trump meant that Washington is not bound by Beijing’s definition of our “One-China” policy, but his statement suggested a transactional approach. In a phone conversation with PRC ruler Xi Jinping soon after entering the White House, President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our “One-China” policy.  Trump conceded to Xi’s “request.”  

Nonetheless, Trump significantly cited “our” policy. The US “One-China” policy differs from the PRC’s “One-China” principle, which claims Taiwan as a PRC province. US policy focuses on the process, rather than the outcome, to resolve the question of Taiwan’s status. Still, Trump’s short statement did not help the news media, which often confuses Washington’s policy with Beijing’s principle and wrongly insinuates US-PRC agreement on Taiwan’s status as a part of China. As Senator John Glenn (D-OH) stated, the United States simply acknowledged, like a neutral bystander, in the Shanghai Communiqué that, “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait” maintain that there is one China with Taiwan a part of China.[1] Indeed, in that year of the Joint Communiqué (1972), the “One-China” that the United States recognized diplomatically was the ROC, commonly called Taiwan. The term “Chinese” included the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) in Taipei that regarded Taiwan as a part of the ROC.  Under the KMT and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwan’s official title has remained the ROC.

Second, confront the top strategic priority while keeping balanced policies between Beijing and Taipei. Reagan’s primary problem in seeking cooperation with China was to face the Soviet Union’s threat. Now, under Trump, the White House finally has made North Korea’s threat the top priority in US dealings with the PRC. However, Trump’s words suggest rewarding China for working on the North Korean threat, which is like paying an arsonist’s accomplice to sprinkle water on his fires. Reagan did not accept the premise that engagement with Taiwan and the PRC was a zero-sum game. In June 1981, James Lilley (advisor at the NSC) and Richard Armitage (official at the Pentagon) advised Reagan to reaffirm publicly the TRA and its clause on arms sales.[2]

This principle of balanced policies remains relevant in pressuring Beijing to confront Pyongyang, an effort that should not come at Taipei’s expense. Since Reagan’s presidency, Taiwan has liberalized as a democracy. So, President Bill Clinton added the US expectation that the dispute between Beijing and Taipei must be resolved not only peacefully but also “with the assent of the people of Taiwan.”[3] Moreover, Taiwan has become an “important security and economic partner,” a moniker the Obama Administration added in 2011.  Both points need to be affirmed with policy changes to expand contacts with Taiwan.

Third, consistently affirm that the TRA guides policy on Taiwan, in order to assert credibility and leadership. Before the Senate confirmed him as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson responded to Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) that the three US-PRC Joint Communiqués, the TRA, and the Six Assurances form the foundation for policy on Taiwan.  However, after questions arose about Tillerson’s visit to Beijing in March, the State Department simply stated that the US stance on Taiwan is our “One-China” policy.  Recognizing that the State Department’s failure to cite the TRA sent the wrong signal, NSC official Matt Pottinger reminded members of the press before the Trump-Xi summit that President Trump had already reaffirmed our “One-China” policy as consistent with the Joint Communiqués as well as the TRA.

As the only law specifically governing policy on Taiwan, the TRA did not even discuss the “One-China” concept. Lester Wolff (D-NY), who was Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs when Congress passed the TRA (and who turned 98 years old in January) says that the legislative intent of the TRA was to ensure Taiwan’s viability, regardless of the “one China” policy. Furthermore, according to Wolff, the TRA protects Taiwan and supports its freedom from China’s claims of sovereignty, while Taiwan and China settle their differences. He worked with Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), among other members of Congress, to pass the “unique” TRA that was signed by the President and then endorsed by successive Congresses with the force of law, unlike the Six Assurances.[4]

In also reaffirming the Six Assurances, Tillerson echoed former Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly’s key testimony at a hearing on the TRA’s 25th anniversary, in 2004. Kelly testified that, “our position continues to be embodied in the so-called Six Assurances offered to Taiwan by President Reagan.”[5]

Fourth, assure Taipei before dealing with Beijing.  It is important to remember that Reagan assured Taipei before Washington issued the third Joint Communiqué with Beijing. On July 14, 1982, Lilley, as Director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), conveyed Six Assurances from Reagan to ROC President Chiang Ching-kuo. During US-PRC negotiations on the third Joint Communiqué, Reagan assured Taiwan that the United States has not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan; has not agreed to hold prior consultations with the PRC on arms sales to Taiwan; will not play any mediation role between Taipei and Beijing, has not agreed to revise the TRA; has not altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan; and will not exert pressure on Taiwan to negotiate with the PRC. The language of the assurance on “sovereignty” led to misunderstandings and competing versions. Reagan’s careful words did not state any US position on Taiwan’s status. US policy regards that status as unsettled.

Fifth, name presidential representatives. Though Lilley was AIT Director, he acted as Reagan’s ambassador. Lilley’s critical role, which he related to this author, shows that Trump needs his own officials to execute policies, rather than using holdovers at AIT, the Pentagon, and the State Department.

Sixth, continue arms sales in full adherence to the TRA.  Two of Reagan’s assurances stressed that arms sales to Taiwan would continue, despite the Joint Communiqué of August 17, 1982. On the same day, Reagan issued a public statement, declaring that arms sales to Taiwan would continue, in accordance with the TRA and the PRC’s professed peaceful policy. In a non-public directive, Reagan added that, “both in quantitative and qualitative terms, Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC will be maintained.”[6] Reagan also wrote that day in his diary that “truth is we are standing with Taiwan and the PRC made all the concessions.”[7] Changes since that time pose a policy issue about whether Taiwan can maintain a military balance in its favor. Still, Reagan linked arms sales to Taiwan with the PRC’s threat as a “permanent imperative” of US foreign policy, reasoning that arms sales would increase if the PRC built up its military threat. Also, the TRA—trumping the communiqués—stipulates that the president and the Congress shall determine the nature and quantity of such defense articles and services “based solely” upon their judgment of Taiwan’s needs.

Now is the urgent time to correct the arms sales process that started in the latter part of George W. Bush’s Administration and continued under Obama. Going astray from Reagan’s linkage in the private directive accompanying the last communiqué, the changed process linked individual defense programs in so-called “packages” and commonly froze notifications to Congress on arms sales before major events connected with the PRC. The Trump Administration should submit the pending programs for congressional review and end the distortion of “packages.”

Reagan’s main concern was the military balance between Taiwan and the PRC. Taiwan is obligated to maintain a sufficient self-defense and assert its defense needs. In March, Taiwan issued a new defense strategy and a Quadrennial Defense Review, but without significantly increasing defense funds.  Taiwan’s Defense Minister repeated a long-standing plea for defense spending at 3 percent of GDP, but the budget amounts to NT $350.7 billion (US $11.5 billion), or only 2 percent of GDP.

Main Point:  Only the US defines “our” policy on Taiwan, which cannot be reduced to simply a “One-China” policy. Clear, credible, and consistent US actions and statements are needed to adhere to the TRA and to counter misleading media stories and the PRC’s political warfare.

[1] Lester Wolff and David Simon, “Statement of Senator John Glenn on China-Taiwan Policy,” July 22, 1982, Legislative History of the Taiwan Relations Act (New York: American Association for Chinese Studies, 1982).
[2] James Lilley with Jeffrey Lilley, China Hands (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), 251-252.
[3] White House, “Remarks by the President to the Business Council,” February 24, 2000.
[4] This paragraph is based on the author’s interviews with former Representative Lester Wolff, March and April 2017.
[5] Testimony of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly at hearing held by the House International Relations Committee on “The Taiwan Relations Act: The Next 25 Years,” April 21, 2004.
[6] Lilley, China Hands, 248.
[7] Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Diaries (New York: Harper, 2007), 75.