April 10 marks the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act becoming the law of the land. The statute was a striking example of a Democratic-controlled Congress pushing back against a Democratic President’s decision to break diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan).
On December 15, 1978, officials in Beijing and Washington announced that formal relations between the People’s Republic and the United States would commence with the New Year. In exchange, Beijing demanded that the United States end relations with Taiwan and withdraw from its security treaty with the island state.
The announcement came as something of a surprise to the rest of Washington. Although the possibility of normalization had been bruited about for some time, the Carter team’s tight hold on the discussions with China meant that Congress felt it had been handed a fait accompli, and that the Administration had ignored the statutory requirement that it be kept apprised about the state of talks.
Fully aware of the ties that had come to exist between Taiwan and the United States since the early 1950s, the Carter Administration attempted to soften the blow with draft legislation on maintaining “commercial, cultural, and other relations with the people of Taiwan on an unofficial basis.” But a bipartisan majority would not bite: Senate Foreign Relations Chair Frank Church (D-ID) described the proposed law as “woefully inadequate.” The chief complaint was that the measure lacked any provisions designed to mitigate the effects of ending the mutual defense treaty on the security situation. This gap was judged especially problematic in light of the Administration’s admission that it had failed to get Beijing to pledge to settle cross-strait issues peacefully.
What emerged from Congress was, in the words of Senator John Glenn (D-OH), a “revised bill” that “clarifies many ambiguities regarding trade, legal, and economic issues” but would also, when it came to security, “reassure the people of Taiwan” and “alert the PRC to our expectations concerning the future.”
The Act, as signed by President Carter, stated that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means . . . would be of grave concern to the United States.” And, to support that policy, the United States was “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “maintain the capacity . . . to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people of Taiwan.”
Yet as significant as the passage of the Act was at the time, its policy goals have been undercut in practice over the years by the fact that it left decisions about what was required to maintain peace in the Strait and about what weapons to sell Taiwan entirely in the hands of the Executive Branch. The result has been an erosion in the military balance in the mainland’s favor, as successive Administrations have put a priority on engagement with China and often have seen arms sales to Taiwan as complicating that effort. Members of Congress at times have protested Administration decisions about weapon sales, but never forcefully enough to change the underlying dynamic.
The Taiwan Relations Act was also intended to allow the people of Taiwan and the United States to remain in close partnership. Over time, however, successive U.S. Administrations have elaborated increasingly narrow perspectives regarding those contacts.
In the wake of the Korean War, U.S. officials saw Taiwan as a vital element in America’s strategic position in East Asia. The island was an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and a great listening post for tracking what was going on in the mainland. But the ties between the United States and Taiwan would grow deeper and assume a greater importance, as officials and families from the two countries moved back and forth for military, business, and educational reasons.
Lost in memory is the fact that Americans in large numbers deployed to the island. Through the U.S. Army Military Assistance Group and U.S. Taiwan Defense Command, thousands of American servicemen and their families were immersed in Taiwanese culture as they provided equipment and training to Taiwanese forces in what at times became an active conflict zone. Some, like Lt. Cols. Frank Lynn of Chicago and Alfred Medendorp of Michigan, killed by shelling from the mainland, paid the ultimate price and are honored to this day by memorials on the Taiwanese island of Kinmen, located only a little more than a mile off the coast of the mainland.
The ambiguity in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship since ties were broken in 1979 is perhaps best captured by Ronald Reagan who, as Governor of California had visited Taiwan and who as a presidential candidate in 1980, had been critical of President Carter’s decision. Yet, once in office, Reagan rejected Taiwan’s request for advanced jet fighters and then publicly announced a policy “to reduce gradually” U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Muddying matters further, Reagan, first in secret and then publicly, tried to reassure both Congress and Taiwan in 1982 by issuing six “Assurances,” which, among other things, stated that no date had been set for ending arms sales and that the United States still held to the view that the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty should be “decided peacefully.”
Thirty-seven years after the “Assurances,” a completely different geostrategic environment faces the United States in Asia. The Cold War is long over and so too the justification for using China as a card to be played against the Soviet Union. Also over is the hope that somehow economic engagement with China would gradually but inevitably lead China down the road to political reform and to becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. To the contrary, as its economy has grown, China has used these increased resources to engage in a quarter-of-a-century long military build-up that has led to a worrisome change in the region’s balance of power and an assertion of power in the South and East China Seas.
In this context Taiwan’s independence and security should be particularly important to Washington. With Russia’s annexation of Crimea, invasion of Ukraine and Georgia, and China’s destabilizing actions in the South China Sea and undermining of Hong Kong’s autonomy, Taiwan will be a key test of U.S. resolve in supporting partners in the face of great power pressure. Taiwan is also important in its own right as a thriving democracy and major U.S. trading partner. No less significant, the island is critical in the region’s balance of power, sitting between two treaty allies (Japan and the Philippines). North and south of the island are the sea gateways to the broader Pacific and America’s base in Guam. In a crisis, Taiwan could be a key partner in containing the Chinese military within the first island chain and preventing it from exerting significant reach into the Western Pacific
For these reasons, Congress should use the opportunity presented by the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act to assess its successes, failures, and the changes that need to be made so that the United States can still fulfill its original intent to the people of Taiwan. The broad and deep relationship with Taipei that existed between 1949 and 1979 has narrowed. Congress can reinvigorate the spirit of the Act by pursuing a multi-pronged agenda for the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.
First, as the United States encourages partners to pursue economic decoupling from mainland China in sensitive sectors, it should also initiate negotiations with Taipei on a U.S.-Taiwan free trade agreement. China’s military buildup and its provocative maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait tend to command the most attention, but Taiwanese economic dependence on the mainland is also a significant national security challenge. Deepening trade and investment ties to the United States and other partners will be key to Taiwan’s continued independent existence, making it more difficult for Beijing to utilize economic coercion to interfere in domestic Taiwanese politics. Congress can encourage the Trump Administration to accept the Tsai government’s offer to resolve longstanding irritants in the U.S.-Taiwan trade relationship and begin negotiations on a free trade agreement as quickly as possible.
Second, the Taiwan Relations Act states that Congress intended to authorize “the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan.” Yet while business and cultural ties have continued to flourish, official interactions have become limited because of the caution of Administrations of both American political parties. And while Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress have met with Taiwanese officials, including the island’s Presidents, on U.S. soil and in Taipei, Executive Branch visits are overwhelmingly limited to working-level officials. The rules governing these contacts are not a matter of law but are set by State Department guidelines that can be modified at any time. Congress should direct the Trump Administration to update those guidelines to ensure that U.S. and Taiwanese officials of all ranks, including in the respective national security agencies and militaries, can meet to discuss issues of mutual interest. Congress should also consider making the Director of the American Institute in Taiwan, our de facto embassy in Taipei, a Senate-confirmed political position.
Third, the United States should take the steps necessary to ensure that the Taiwan Relations Act’s declaration that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” would be “of grave concern to the United States” is addressed. Given China’s military buildup across from Taiwan and its now routine air, naval, and missile deployments designed to bully Taiwan, the Pentagon should, in addition to regularizing arms sales to Taiwan, invite the Taiwanese military to participate in exercises to increase the former’s proficiency in combined arms and to ensure that the two forces are able to operate effectively together should the need arise.
Finally, Beijing has put Taipei under increasing pressure by closing off its international space. It has attempted to poach Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic allies and has used its growing clout in many international organizations to block the more than 23 million Taiwanese from being represented in international organizations on issues such as health, law enforcement, and civil aviation. Congress should ensure that U.S. partners and allies understand that promoting ties and cooperation with Taiwan is a priority for U.S. policy, a priority that will be considered when Washington assesses annual assistance budgets.
Since 1949, Americans across all economic strata have engaged in friendship and exchanges with Taiwan. Congress intended the Taiwan Relations Act to preserve these ties and honor the sacrifices previous generations of Americans made to Taiwan’s success.
At a time when many wonder whether the world will be remade in China’s image, it’s important to remember that there is another model with Chinese characteristics out there—economically vibrant, raucously democratic, pro-American, and peaceful toward its neighbors. The cost of supporting Taiwan today is much less than it was in the 1950s. A good start would be to update the TRA in a way that reflects the deep historical ties between our two peoples.