The Trump Administration and Taiwan: 38 Years after the TRA

The Trump Administration and Taiwan: 38 Years after the TRA

The Trump Administration and Taiwan: 38 Years after the TRA

In the early 1980s I was a young Foreign Service Officer working in the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). In January 1982, veteran China Hand, Jim Lilley, arrived to become the second head of AIT, replacing Chuck Cross. Jim had come directly from President Reagan’s National Security Council and he had brought considerable new focus on preserving the dignity of Taiwan, a long-time friend and ally, despite the break in diplomatic relations two years prior. I knew that President Reagan and his vice president, George H. W. Bush had handpicked Jim to represent them in Taiwan, in order to convey America’s deep respect for the island and its people.

Morale at AIT improved considerably with Jim’s arrival, as we felt our important work, from top to bottom, would be more respected back in Washington with a leader of his caliber. Having met Jim in the late seventies, when we were both studying Chinese at Middlebury College’s Summer Language School, I was privileged to consider him a friend and mentor from an early age. From the very start of his tour in Taiwan, Jim stressed to all of us working in AIT the importance of treating Taiwan with the respect an old friend deserved.  

This came less than two years after the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) by the US Congress, which codified our informal commitment to the island’s security. The TRA was passed in the wake of the December 1978 agreement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that established formal diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing. Several months later, the third US-PRC Communiqué was released on August 17, 1982. This document, the result of Beijing’s pressure on Washington to flesh out terms for American security cooperation with Taiwan, envisioned the gradual reduction of weapons sales to the island.  

But it was importantly premised on steps by the PRC to reduce its threat to use force to resolve the issue. Thus there was a considerable amount of flexibility in the way the United States determined its arms sales and other security assurances to Taiwan. I am pleased that this document has not significantly impaired our ability to continue providing appropriate defensive weaponry to Taiwan well into the 21st  century.

That summer I remember Jim going to see President Chiang Ching-kuo to brief him on President Reagan’s “Six Assurances,” designed to assure our friends in Taiwan that we would continue to honor our moral commitment to their safety and security. Though the initiative for the TRA sprang largely from Taiwan’s many friends on the Hill, Jim was already fully on board with the idea that a special relationship with Taiwan was central to American values and policy in the Asia-Pacific region.

I had the honor of again serving under Ambassador Lilley at the Beijing Embassy 10 years later. While fully cognizant of the importance of good relations with the PRC, Jim had not lost his affection for Taiwan. He firmly believed that we did not have to suppress or hide that sentiment, even as we sought to work with a rising China on the multitude of issues that relationship encompassed.

Over the course o the past three and a half decades, we have witnessed the Tiananmen massacre, the democratization of Taiwan, and the growing economic and political importance of China. But thanks to the vision of people like Jim Lilley, the United States has been true to our friends in Taiwan, in a commitment to treat the island with the respect and attention the relationship deserves.

Every time a new administration takes office in Washington, anxiety in Taiwan over the future of US-Taiwan ties resurfaces. But just as regularly, each new administration, be it Republican or Democrat, has quickly reaffirmed the basics of the relationship, including references to our diplomatic ties to Beijing, the TRA, and the “One-China” policy. The Trump Administration has thus far conformed to this pattern, albeit with some small wrinkles.

The phone conversation between President-elect Trump and Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016 understandably created some waves. The call, placed by President Tsai, was a bit unusual and suggested a lack of understanding by Mr. Trump of the long and complicated history on this subject. But I believe Mr. Trump’s acceptance of the call, and the generally warm character of the exchange as reported, falls within the broader parameters of our policy. In short, America recognizes Beijing as our diplomatic partner under the “One-China” policy, while preserving a large reservoir of respect and friendship for Taiwan and its people.  

That includes preservation of the important—albeit informal—relationship we enjoy with Taiwan, as well as our sense that any possible reunification of Taiwan with the mainland must occur without the threat or use of force. The TRA also charges the US Government with maintaining a strong military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, and with continuing to provide arms to permit Taiwan to maintain an adequate defense. These provisions are aimed at assuring that China will never attempt to use force to resolve this question.

President Trump is the least experienced person in modern times to assume the presidency, having never previously served in government at any level. It has been postulated that a more knowledgeable person might not have accepted President Tsai’s phone call last December. But I accept his explanation that it was the right thing to do under the circumstances. Nor am I surprised that Mr. Trump and his staff agreed to formally acknowledge the “One-China” policy (as we interpret it), during his first phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This all occurred in preparation for the subsequent summit between the two leaders earlier this month in Florida.

I firmly believe that it would be appropriate for the Trump Administration to approve new arms sales to Taiwan, including upgrades to its air defense systems and a review of Taiwan’s air force, with an eye toward a long-term plan to provide more sophisticated aircraft to the island. The question of supporting Taiwan’s development of an indigenously manufactured submarine capability is complicated by the fact that the United States has not made diesel submarines for several decades. But within those constraints, it may be possible for Washington—or its friends in Europe—to provide some quiet assistance on the technology of such warships.

Another small but symbolically important step that could be taken is to allow State Department and other US Government officials to receive Taiwan officials in their offices. Current practice is that such meetings must be conducted outside of federal buildings. But US officials receive all varieties of non-official persons in their offices,o there is little logic in denying the same right to TECRO representatives.  When there is business to conduct, it should be done the same way US officials manage relations with all sorts of other guests, from academics to journalists to friends.

Equally important, the Trump Administration has committed to a robust and enhanced defense budget, which should focus in particular on our ability to defend our partners and allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Taiwan—as well as our more traditional allies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia—would naturally figure into this planning. The broader goal of American security planning vis-à-vis Taiwan is to signal to Beijing that we would never allow it to resolve the cross-Strait issue with the use of force. This has worked well now for nearly four decades. Recommitment to this policy by each new US administration has been central to our approach on the cross-Strait issue.

Any peaceful resolution of the Taiwan situation is unlikely to unfold quickly. The persistence of an authoritarian regime in Beijing that does not allow its own people to choose their leaders or policies makes the PRC an outlier in the region. A truly democratic PRC would not guarantee greater progress toward unification with Taiwan, but would, in my opinion, be a critical prerequisite.

The United States should also continue to engage in the broad spectrum of economic and people-to-people relations that have long defined our ties to Taiwan. The American Institute in Taiwan has a strong professional staff that helps to manage this important relationship with one of our biggest trade partners in the region.   Plans to move to a new AIT office complex in the coming months will underscore the enduring nature of America’s ties to the people of Taiwan.