The Taiwan Relations Act at 45: A Pillar of US Statecraft

The Taiwan Relations Act at 45: A Pillar of US Statecraft

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The Taiwan Relations Act at 45: A Pillar of US Statecraft

The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) celebrates its 45th birthday on April 10, and few pieces of foreign affairs legislation passed by the US Congress have been as significant or as long-lasting. Designed as the congressional response to the executive branch’s normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and concomitant diminishment of formal ties with Taiwan, the TRA has transformed over the decades into a pillar of US statecraft valued and wielded by presidents and Congresses of both political parties.

Originally intended to check the Carter Administration’s transfer of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to the PRC, the TRA has evolved into not simply the bipartisan benchmark for each successive US administration’s approach to Taiwan. Rather, its near-universal acceptance in Washington and its subsequent executive branch corollaries have given the TRA extraordinary relevance in shaping the United States’ evolving relationship with the PRC itself. With the TRA’s evolution into an unquestioned pillar of America’s strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific, every US-China interaction is directly or indirectly shaped by the legislation’s imposition of guardrails, guaranteeing a modicum of US support for Taiwan.

Despite the TRA’s positive legacy—both for the US-Taiwan bilateral relationship and for the US strategic position regionally the rapidly changing security situation in the Indo-Pacific requires a reappraisal of the intellectual framework surrounding the TRA. As Taiwan’s democracy, economy, and strategic significance have evolved, simply relying upon the TRA as a minimum protection against a theoretical US administration willing to trade Taiwan away on the geopolitical chessboard fails to appreciate the singularly important, self-governing island.

The next US president will need a forward-looking agenda that emphasizes the value of Taiwan to the United States—independent of the US-PRC strategic competition—and thus moves beyond seeing the TRA as simply a floor on the American relationship with Taipei. As has occurred in the past, the TRA can serve as a launching pad for dynamic executive and Congressional policy innovation that expands the US-Taiwan partnership across the economic, diplomatic, cultural, and military spheres.

The Taiwan Relations Act

The TRA emerged as a response to the secret Cold War diplomacy of President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Nixon and Kissinger’s travels to the PRC in the early 1970s paved the way for the normalization of relations between Washington and Beijing in a bid to outflank the Soviet Union and split the Communist world. In succeeding in this effort, Nixon and Kissinger consciously traded away the post-1949 US alliance with Taiwan. By the time President Jimmy Carter’s Administration was implementing the “One-China Policy” and switching diplomatic recognition to the PRC, Taiwan was on the precipice of diplomatic and legal oblivion.

Yet the bipartisan coalition in Congress that had supported Taiwan since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 responded to Carter’s normalization march by introducing the TRA in February 1979. Authored by the liberal internationalist Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Clement J. Zablocki (D-WI), the TRA compensated for the Carter Administration’s unilateral abrogation of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty (SAMDT). Passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by President Carter—despite his State Department’s unsuccessful advocacy for less robust language—the TRA established unofficial relations between the United States and Taiwan. Crucially, it also required Taiwan to be treated as a sovereign state equivalent for the purposes of US diplomatic engagement.

Most famously, the legislation requires the United States to “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,” and notes that Washington “shall maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” This language has served as the foundation for US Taiwan policy since President Carter signed the TRA, and it has been buttressed by several significant executive branch actions that built upon the Act’s essential purpose.

Building Upon the TRA

Part of the TRA’s enduring significance to US statecraft has been the effective expansion of its underlying premise–US support for Taiwan despite the lack of formal diplomatic recognition–by both Congressional and executive action across multiple US administrations of both political parties. For instance, President Ronald Reagan’s 1982 “Six Assurances,” which sought to strengthen the American commitment to Taiwan through executive branch policy, remain a foundational element of the US-Taiwan relationship.

The Six Assurances have been reaffirmed consistently since 1982 by succeeding administrations and reinforced by acts of Congress, including the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that declared the Six Assurances to be the foundation of US-Taiwan relations. American political leaders as diverse as former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have consistently invoked the Six Assurances. The “floor” set by the TRA provided subsequent presidents and congresses with maneuvering room to expand and protect the US-Taiwan relationship from that starting point.

The TRA: What’s Next?

Despite the undeniable success of the TRA in both safeguarding the US-Taiwan partnership and spurring positive policy innovation based upon it, the Act has become something of a crutch that excuses policymakers’ from attempting to reimagine a US-Taiwan partnership more suited to 21st century geopolitical realities. Most concerning, the TRA traps the bilateral relationship firmly in the context of the broader US-China relationship and disincentivizes Washington from seeking a US-Taiwan partnership grounded in mutual interest and values, rather than simply serving as an adjunct of the Washington-Beijing competition.

So long as Washington’s mindset remains a defensive one that imagines relations with Taipei as a subset of Sino-American ties, the US-Taiwan partnership will remain inherently limited. As important and innovative as the TRA and the follow-on policies it spawned are, the Act is fundamentally concerned with managing US-Taiwan ties in the context of Washington’s broader relationship with Beijing, both as a historical and practical matter. Instead, future US administrations and Congresses should pursue a multitrack approach to the intellectual framework behind relations with Taipei. Such an approach should honor the TRA and subsequent actions like the Six Assurances as foundational to the relationship, while explicitly acknowledging that the bilateral relationship is informed by the same calculations and considerations that underpin all US bilateral ties. This would benefit from the TRA’s political acceptance in Washington and its role as a bulwark against any future diminishment of US-Taiwan ties, while simultaneously emphasizing to the world that the relationship with Taiwan can function and expand outside of strictures primarily designed with Beijing in mind. Such a formulation would provide the United States with the space to truly innovate and develop policies toward Taiwan that reflect 21st-century realities rather than the geopolitical dynamics of the late 1970s.

Mapping a 21st Century US-Taiwan Partnership

As laid out by the Global Taiwan Institute’s Task Force on US-Taiwan Relations in its December 2023 report, “Advancing the US-Taiwan Partnership in a Changing Global Landscape,” opportunities for expansion of the US-Taiwan partnership exist across the diplomatic political, economic, and military domains. In the Washington policy context, far too many of these potential opportunities are assumed to be impractical because of a set of self-imposed strictures that hobble American policymakers. From eliminating needless and self-defeating limits on Taiwan’s official engagement with the United States to more forthrightly arguing for Taiwan’s international space, Washington enjoys significant opportunities to enhance the bilateral partnership and establish it outside a purely US-China context.

The next US administration has a distinct opportunity to affirm its support for the TRA and its successor policies while making clear that this is simply the floor, not the ceiling, of the bilateral relationship. A new US doctrine that normalizes the management of the relationship and affirms that it exists outside of any other bilateral relationship would open the aperture for additional opportunities for policy innovation and make clear to Beijing and the broader international community that the United States will not allow its approach to one of the world’s most dynamic democracies to be dictated by either external threats or bureaucratic inertia. Fittingly, such an approach would be in keeping with the 45-year history of the Taiwan Relations Act as a source for evolving approaches to US-Taiwan relations.

The main point: While the Taiwan Relations Act has successfully guided the US-Taiwan bilateral relationship for over four decades, its impact has long been limited by self-imposed bureaucratic strictures and a tendency to view it in the context of the broader US-PRC relationship. In light of rapidly evolving geopolitical conditions, the next US administration should work to develop a more modern, comprehensive approach to US-Taiwan relations, expanding upon the foundation set out in the TRA.