A Personal Retrospective on the Taiwan Relations Act at 45: How the TRA Provided the Base for US-Taiwan Relations

A Personal Retrospective on the Taiwan Relations Act at 45: How the TRA Provided the Base for US-Taiwan Relations

ustaiwan mast
A Personal Retrospective on the Taiwan Relations Act at 45: How the TRA Provided the Base for US-Taiwan Relations

The Taiwan Relations Act has proved to be a remarkably far-sighted and effective piece of US legislation. Enacted 45 years ago, the TRA has stood the test of time. It has provided the means to develop a broad and mutually beneficial bilateral relationship between the United States and Taiwan. Just as important, it has helped maintain regional stability when tensions across the Taiwan Strait have increased.

Goals of the TRA

The world of the late 1970s differed greatly from the world of today. The Iron Curtain separated Eastern and Western Europe. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) had just begun experimenting with economic reform and opening up; its economy was one-tenth the size of the US economy. Taiwan was under martial law. The United States viewed the Soviet Union as the biggest threat to global peace and stability, while the PRC saw Moscow both as its competitor for leadership of global communism and as a potential military threat.

Against this backdrop, the Carter Administration broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan in order to establish formal relations with the PRC. The US Congress then passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), and President Jimmy Carter signed it into law on April 10, 1979. 

With passage of the TRA, Congress sought to ensure that the United States would retain a strong relationship with Taiwan and oppose any attempts to change Taiwan’s status by force. In support of a strong US-Taiwan relationship, the TRA stipulated that it was US policy “to preserve and promote extensive, close, and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan.” In practice, however, maintaining such a relationship with a Taiwan with which the United States no longer had diplomatic ties posed unique challenges. In response, the TRA outlined an imaginative and unprecedented approach: creating the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT).

AIT is a non-profit organization incorporated in the District of Columbia. The TRA entrusted AIT with conducting unofficial relations between the United States and Taiwan. The TRA specifically authorized AIT to work with a Taiwan counterpart organization to negotiate, sign, and implement agreements similar to the government-to-government agreements signed between the United States and its formal diplomatic partners.

With respect to Taiwan’s future security, the TRA set out US expectations and established guidelines. The law declared “that peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States, and are matters of international concern and that the United States decision to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.” The TRA went on to note that the United States would consider any effort “to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.” The Act further stated that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” The law “directed” the president “to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom.”

The First Decade of the TRA

My own exposure to Taiwan and cross-Strait issues intensified in 1988, when I moved to Taiwan for intensive Chinese language training in preparation for an upcoming tour of duty at the US Embassy in Beijing. Taiwan had lifted martial law the year before, but the island’s political future remained unclear. The media was still strictly controlled. The legislature consisted almost entirely of representatives elected in mainland China in 1947. There were no provisions for the popular election of the president.

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, Deng Xiaoping’s (邓小平) policy of opening up and reforming the Chinese economy had created great expectations inside the PRC. By the spring of 1989, over a million people had joined protests in Tiananmen Square demanding even greater freedoms. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) viewed those demonstrations as a threat to its continued rule.      

During this first decade of its existence, the TRA, as it was meant to do, had created arrangements between the United States and Taiwan that allowed people-to-people ties to flourish. Visa issuances soared. US-Taiwan trade more than doubled as commercial disputes were resolved through discussions between AIT and its counterpart Taiwan body. The TRA had also underscored US support for human rights in Taiwan, an issue which Congress continued to raise. Many members of Congress were pushing for greater democratization in Taiwan.

The TRA and the First Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis

In 1994, I returned to Taiwan to become head of AIT’s political section.

Taiwan had changed dramatically in the five years since I had left. The media was wide open. A vibrant civil society was rapidly developing and demanding that its voice be heard. The Taiwan legislature was being chosen in free and fair elections, and all legislators elected from mainland China constituencies had retired. Taiwan was moving toward its first direct presidential election.

In China, after brutally suppressing the Tiananmen demonstrations, the CCP had moved back toward economic reform and opening up. In the run-up to Taiwan’s March 1996 presidential election, however, Beijing became infuriated by the US decision to allow Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) to give a speech at his alma mater, Cornell University. In an apparent attempt to intimidate Taiwan’s voters into rejecting Lee, the PRC conducted a series of missile and live ammunition tests near Taiwan’s two major ports, including shortly before the election. These PRC attempts backfired. The United States sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region, underscoring the US commitment under the TRA to oppose attempts to change Taiwan’s status through the use of force. Beijing ended the tests, and Lee became Taiwan’s first popularly elected president, winning with a vote share more than 10 points higher than polls had forecast before the PRC began its attempts to affect the election.

A Period of Rapid Change

From 2001-2004, I served in the White House, first as National Security Council (NSC) director for China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong affairs and then as special assistant to the president and NSC senior director for Asia.

During the first two decades of the 21st century, the relationship between Taiwan and the PRC changed dramatically. Mainland China underwent an economic miracle, becoming the greatest industrial power in the world, while at the same time developing a formidable military. The TRA’s provisions encouraging cooperation between AIT and its counterpart in Taiwan were also working as planned. By the end of 2012, the two organizations had signed some 150 agreements in areas as diverse as agriculture, civil aviation, drug enforcement, and protection of intellectual property. These agreements not only benefitted the people of both the United States and Taiwan, but in several areas, including public health, led to significant global progress. The TRA also underpinned a USD $6 billion US arms sale package to Taiwan to help it defend itself from attempts to change its status by force.

By the time I took over as the chair of AIT’s Board of Trustees in 2016, Taiwan, the PRC, and cross-Strait relations were all vastly different from what they had been in 1979. Taiwan was a full-fledged, raucous democracy with a robust economy and a strong sense of self-identity. The PRC had become the second largest economy in the world and continued to rapidly develop its military strength. The United States and Taiwan had become two of the PRC’s largest trade and investment partners, and Taiwan itself had become a high-tech powerhouse. 

Under the leadership of Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping (習近平), the PRC abandoned its previous policy of biding its time while developing its strength. From the Himalayas to the South China Sea to the Taiwan Strait, Beijing began pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy. The PRC increasingly turned to tactics such as disinformation and economic coercion to undermine Taiwan’s democracy, while simultaneously stepping up military exercises and maneuvers designed to intimidate Taiwan.     

One thing had not changed, however: the importance of the Taiwan Relations Act in anchoring both the US-Taiwan relationship and peace and stability in the Western Pacific. In recent years, for example, the systems set up by the TRA allowed the United States and Taiwan to work together to meet the challenges of COVD-19, through both the sharing of vital supplies and cooperation on scientific research and innovation. As threats in the Western Pacific have continued to grow, the TRA has provided the legal and administrative framework for the United States to work with Taiwan to build an increasingly strong deterrent to aggression.

The TRA and the Future

Despite vast changes over the past 45 years, the TRA has provided a firm foundation for a continued strong relationship between the United States and Taiwan. In the face of increasing uncertainty in the region, the TRA will remain a linchpin for efforts by the United States to maintain peace and stability in the Western Pacific.

The main point: Over the 45 years since the Taiwan Relations Act was signed, the world has seen seismic economic, political, and military shifts. Despite these changes, the TRA remains a critical pillar of the US-Taiwan relationship, and will only grow in importance in the years to come.