Focus Taiwan App
Download

FEATURE/Taiwan Relations Act at 45: Still a cornerstone of bilateral ties

04/06/2024 03:57 PM
To activate the text-to-speech service, please first agree to the privacy policy below.
Then Deputy-Foreign Minister Chang Hsiao-yen (章孝嚴) addresses attendees of the "Symposium on the ROC-US Relations Under the Taiwan Relations Act: Practice and Prospect" at Taiwan's National Chengchi University in April 5,1988. CNA file photo
Then Deputy-Foreign Minister Chang Hsiao-yen (章孝嚴) addresses attendees of the "Symposium on the ROC-US Relations Under the Taiwan Relations Act: Practice and Prospect" at Taiwan's National Chengchi University in April 5,1988. CNA file photo

By Joseph Yeh, CNA staff reporter

In January 1979, a young diplomat officially joined the Republic of China's diplomatic corps at the most challenging time in the country's relationship with its strongest ally, the United States.

The Jimmy Carter administration's decision to switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing had just taken effect on Jan. 1 and the "Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty" allowing Washington to back the ROC's self-defense was set to end on Dec. 31, 1979.

The ROC was unnerved because there was no formal law in place to define relations between the ROC (Taiwan's formal name) and the U.S. after the diplomatic shift, though the Carter administration had proposed a bill called the "Taiwan Enabling Act" to fill the gap.

Former U.S. Representative Rodney Chandler guest speaks at the "Symposium on the ROC-US Relations Under the Taiwan Relations Act: Practice and Prospect" at Taiwan's National Chengchi University in April 5,1988. CNA file photo
Former U.S. Representative Rodney Chandler guest speaks at the "Symposium on the ROC-US Relations Under the Taiwan Relations Act: Practice and Prospect" at Taiwan's National Chengchi University in April 5,1988. CNA file photo

It argued that the bill would provide for continued "unofficial" relations with Taipei, but the U.S. Congress disagreed, with Idaho Senator Frank Church saying the proposed act was "woefully inadequate to the task, ambiguous in language and uncertain in tone."

Rejecting the Taiwan Enabling Act as too weak, the U.S. Congress later passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) by an overwhelming majority, and it was signed into law by Carter on April 10, 1979.

Since then, the act has served as the legal framework guiding Washington's unofficial relations with Taipei, including providing weapons for Taiwan's self-defense.

That young diplomat who witnessed the process resulting in the TRA was Stanley Kao (高碩泰), who later served as Taiwan's top envoy to the U.S. from May 2016 to July 2020 before retiring from public service.

Speaking to CNA in a recent interview, Kao said the TRA has been a bedrock of bilateral relations critical to the interests of both the U.S. and Taiwan.

Taiwan's top envoy to the U.S. from May 2016 to July 2020 Stanley Kao at a 2023 event to promote his book. CNA file photo
Taiwan's top envoy to the U.S. from May 2016 to July 2020 Stanley Kao at a 2023 event to promote his book. CNA file photo

During his diplomatic career, the U.S. has held 11 presidential polls since, and while each one has been closely followed by Taiwan, it has always had reason to feel its interests would be protected, Kao said.

"The TRA's legal structure and policy foundation have always left us feeling reassured [no matter who was elected]. Without the TRA, there would have been too many uncertainties," he added.

Speaking at a reception in Washington to mark the 45th anniversary of the TRA's enactment on March 6, Taiwan's current representative to the U.S. Alexander Yui (俞大㵢) described the TRA and Six Assurances as the "the North Star" guiding U.S. and Taiwan policymakers in an increasingly challenging geopolitical environment.

Taiwan's current representative to the U.S. Alexander Yui (left) shakes hands with U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson (right) at a meeting in January this year. CNA file photo
Taiwan's current representative to the U.S. Alexander Yui (left) shakes hands with U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson (right) at a meeting in January this year. CNA file photo

"The TRA has been instrumental for the U.S. to provide for Taiwan's defensive capabilities; to insist on the peaceful resolution of disputes; to help Taiwan resist coercion; and to support Taiwan's international participation," Yui said.

Serving U.S., Taiwan's interests

So what exactly did the TRA get right to help preserve the peace and prosperity in the Taiwan Strait and serve the interests of Taiwan and the U.S.?

Among the most important provisions in the TRA is that U.S. policy on Taiwan should "make clear 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."

It also says Washington should 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."

Most importantly, it stipulates that it is the U.S.' policy "to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and to maintain the capacity of the United States 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 on Taiwan."

This provision on helping Taiwan defend itself was significant because the originally proposed Taiwan Enabling Act made no provision for Taiwan's security, arms transfers, or operation of representative offices, according to Kao.

Taiwan's former top envoy to the U.S. Stanley Kao at public appearance in Taiwan in 2023. CNA file photo
Taiwan's former top envoy to the U.S. Stanley Kao at public appearance in Taiwan in 2023. CNA file photo

Kao said the Taiwan Enabling Act had "too many loopholes" and was deemed "insincere" in dealing with Taiwan issues, and was therefore promptly rejected by the U.S. Congress.

Congress later asked its own assistants to draft the TRA to make sure it would cover all aspects of Washington-Taipei exchanges in the absence of official ties, he noted.

The carefully crafted wording of the TRA has made it "iconic" and helped it stand the test of time, Kao said.

Alexander Huang (黃介正), chair of Taipei-based think tank Council on Strategic & Wargaming Studies and head of the opposition Kuomintang's international affairs department, told CNA the TRA's strength has been its "authoritative yet flexible" text that has stood up to many challenges over 45 years.

That flexibility has given the White House and Congress wiggle room in handling relations with Taipei based on U.S. interests, Huang said.

It has also allowed the Congress to get involved in Taiwan policy even though U.S. foreign policy is largely in the hands of the U.S. president under the U.S. Constitution, he added.

Vital to Taiwan's defense

Chieh Chung (揭仲), a researcher at the Taiwan-based Association of Strategic Foresight, highlighted the importance of the TRA's clauses to Taiwan's defense.

They include allowing the U.S. to continue providing arms to Taiwan despite the cutting of ties, and providing required training to Taiwan's military personnel through a bilateral military exchange program, he said.

Taiwan-based Association of Strategic Foresight researcher Chieh Chung (right) at a national defense presentation in 2023. CNA file photo
Taiwan-based Association of Strategic Foresight researcher Chieh Chung (right) at a national defense presentation in 2023. CNA file photo

It also describes PRC potential attempts to determine the future of Taiwan by "other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes" as a "threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States," Chieh said.

That's significant, Chieh noted, because it provides a legal basis for the U.S. to actively intervene in the wake of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan as such behavior on Beijing's part constitutes a threat to U.S. interests in the region.

Strategic ambiguity

What the TRA does not clearly say is what the U.S. would do if China were to invade Taiwan, consistent with Washington's long-standing policy of "strategic ambiguity" on Taiwan.

Such ambiguity, as vaguely stated in the TRA, represents the unspoken understanding and consensus shared by Taiwan and the U.S. for decades since the TRA took effect in 1979, Kao said.

How the text of the TRA is interpreted is up to the U.S. government and successive presidents, Kao said, which is why he considers the TRA to be a "living act" that continues to evolve and transform even after 45 years.

Trump or Biden?

Yet, even as the TRA evolves, can it survive America's increasingly acrimonious political environment?

With sitting U.S. President Joe Biden set to face off against his predecessor Donald Trump in the November presidential election, uncertainty looms in the relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, as the latter is known to be a "transactional leader," said Kao, who facilitated the historic telephone call in December 2016 between then President-elect Trump and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) .

U.S. boy scouts presents the flags of Taiwan and the U.S. in this CNA file photo
U.S. boy scouts presents the flags of Taiwan and the U.S. in this CNA file photo

Biden, on the other hand, voted in favor of the TRA while a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1979, and has a more predictable attitude toward Taiwan, Kao added.

Whatever happens, Taiwan will be watching closely to see if the U.S. continues to stick to the commitments made in the TRA, hoping that it will continue to stand the test of time.

Enditem/ls

View All
We value your privacy.
Focus Taiwan (CNA) uses tracking technologies to provide better reading experiences, but it also respects readers' privacy. Click here to find out more about Focus Taiwan's privacy policy. When you close this window, it means you agree with this policy.
172.30.142.19