The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1272es on Asia

April 16, 1999

April 16, 1999 | Executive Summary on Asia

Executive Summary: The Taiwan Relations Act After 20 Years: Keys to Past and Future Success

Signed into law on April 10, 1979, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA, Public Law 96-8) was born of the need of the United States to protect its significant security and commercial interests in the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan in the wake of President Jimmy Carter's termination of diplomatic relations and a mutual defense treaty of 25 years. Provoked by the lack of prior consultation and the inadequacy of the Carter Administration's proposed legislation, lawmakers from both parties in Congress worked together to craft a bill that truly tackled the challenge of allowing for diplomatic relations with mainland China while maintaining all substantive relations with Taiwan.

The Taiwan Relations Act has played an indispensable role in shaping American policy toward Taiwan and U.S. strategy in Asia. It represents America's best ideals and safeguards fundamental security and commercial interests. The TRA is unique in purpose and form. It is the only law to govern nearly every aspect of U.S. relations with a foreign government in the absence of diplomatic relations. The TRA sets forth clear policy goals and establishes an institutional framework sufficient to meet those objectives.

The Taiwan Relations Act has proved to be a surprisingly effective guide for U.S. policy. Over the past 20 years, the TRA has allowed the United States to preserve peace, promote freedom, and maintain flexibility in balancing its relations and interests with governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. It has been a source of clarity and consistency for U.S. policy from administration to administration, Democrat and Republican alike. It has maintained its relevance and effectiveness in the face of changing politics at home and in Taiwan, and remains an important safeguard against any administration's sacrificing U.S. interests in Taiwan in pursuit of improved relations with China.

By deterring aggression by the mainland, the United States has protected Taiwan from being forced into negotiations with China under the threat of armed attack or other forms of coercion. The TRA maintains the stable and secure environment within which Taiwan has become one of the world's leading free-market democracies. The legal and policy framework created by the TRA has allowed the U.S. government and the American people to enjoy substantive relations with the governments and people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. None of this would have been possible, as Ronald Reagan noted in 1980, had it not been for "the timely action of the Congress, reflecting the strong support of the American people for Taiwan."

Today, as President Bill Clinton works to create a strategic partnership with China, many in Congress are concerned, as were their colleagues in 1979, that such a partnership may come at the expense of Taiwan's security or other American commitments outlined in the TRA. It is an appropriate time for Members of Congress to reflect on the masterful language of the TRA that has maintained a consistently clear expression of American interests and policy. The prescience of the authors of the TRA is demonstrated by how well this 20-year-old language fits the new challenges of today.

Faithful Implementation of the TRA

To honor American commitments made under the Taiwan Relations Act, Congress and the Clinton Administration together should strive to enhance Taiwan's freedom and security. For 20 years, the TRA has provided a security umbrella that has facilitated Taiwan's impressive economic expansion and democratization. To protect these gains and continue faithfully to implement the TRA, the United States should:

  • Urge China to renounce the use of force against Taiwan.
    This is consistent with the longstanding U.S. insistence that Taiwan's future be determined by peaceful means.

  • Sell Taiwan missile defense system and technology.
    Considering China's provocative military exercises and tests of nuclear-capable missiles near Taiwan in 1995 and 1996, and China's increased deployment of missiles near Taiwan, providing assistance for Taiwan's missile defense is both appropriate and consistent with the TRA.

  • Actively support Taiwan's membership in international organizations.
    With a strong economy and vibrant democracy, Taiwan is clearly prepared to make significant contributions to the international community through institutions involved in trade, economic development, and humanitarian assistance.

  • Promote Taiwan's democracy in China and abroad.
    Consistent with its interest in human rights on Taiwan, the United States must properly recognize and reward the Taiwan people for their success in establishing a democracy. One way to do this is to treat Taiwan's leaders officially with the respect appropriate to duly elected representatives of a thriving democracy.

It is up to Congress to keep America committed to the simple goals of the Taiwan Relations Act--to deter aggression by the mainland, promote economic freedom, and protect the human rights of the Taiwan people. Ronald Reagan described American commitments under the TRA as a "moral obligation" to a long-time friend and ally. The United States must do all it can to help the democratic people of Taiwan to live free from military coercion and to guarantee Taiwan's ability to make an appropriate contribution to global institutions that promote peace and prosperity.

The Taiwan Relations Act is an example of American foreign policy at its best. There is no better way to mark the 20th anniversary of its enactment than to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to its honorable goals and to restore clarity and consistency to America's China policy.

Stephen J. Yates is a former Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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