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A nation must think before it acts.
The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) is rightly lauded as one of the most durable and effective laws governing foreign policy in U.S. history. For 40 years, the TRA has helped stabilize Washington’s relations with Taiwan and with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It has enabled the U.S. to continue to carry out relations with Taipei that are consistent with its commitments to the PRC under the Shanghai Communiqué (1972) and the Normalization Communiqué (1979). It has remained useful and relevant through massive changes in international politics and in Taiwan’s domestic politics. But today, the U.S. appears to be adopting a new approach to foreign policy. Whether the TRA will retain its relevance in this new era—the era of American First—remains to be seen.
The TRA is, at its heart, a product of the Cold War. Until just 40 years ago, the U.S. formally recognized the Republic of China on Taiwan as the official Chinese state because American leaders were loath to afford that status to the Communist Party-led PRC. Anti-Communism, a value the U.S. shared with Taiwan, was deeply embedded in U.S. politics. Many politicians, including powerful members of Congress, were furious when they learned the U.S. was planning to switch recognition to the PRC. The TRA was their attempt to soften the effects of derecognition; it offered Taiwan moral support, backed by economic, political, and military commitments.
Given its origins in an anti-Communist alliance, the TRA might have lost its relevance when the Soviet Union fell. What value would a staunchly anti-Communist, but authoritarian, regime have had for the U.S. once Communism was no longer a threat? But by the time the USSR collapsed, Taiwan had shifted its “value proposition” in line with changing American priorities and global trends. Over the course of the 1980s, Taiwan’s authoritarian system evolved in the direction of a liberal democracy, a process that was completed in the early 1990s. Like a Sichuan mask-changer, Taiwan deftly swapped out authoritarian anti-Communism for liberal democracy, acquiring a face that aligned with America’s post-Cold War priorities such as free trade and human rights diplomacy. Instead of becoming irrelevant, the TRA acquired a new value, as the foundation for a reconstituted U.S.-Taiwan relationship.
In the post-Cold War era, U.S. officials held Taiwan up as an exemplar of the virtues of the time. The “bulwark against Communism” became a “beacon of democracy” celebrated for its smooth, bloodless transition and vibrant, globalizing economy. The TRA was capacious enough to accommodate this transition; the original document referenced human rights as a strength of Taiwan, and President Bill Clinton enshrined democracy in the Taiwan policy catechism when he said the U.S. would support changes to the relationship between the PRC and Taiwan only if they were made peacefully, by both sides working together, and only if the Taiwanese people assented to the changes.
Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, making the case for Taiwan and the TRA was easy. Even though it lacked formal representation in most foreign capitals and international organizations, Taiwan was an active presence in the global economy. Taiwan-based manufacturing firms played a pivotal role in bringing mainland China into global manufacturing networks when they began moving their labor-intensive operations across the Taiwan Strait in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, Taiwan became a leading exporter of high-tech goods, including motherboards, PCs, and semiconductors. Taiwanese firms such as Foxconn led (and lead) the world in electronics manufacturing services. As technology matured, Taiwanese firms integrated the mainland into advanced supply chains, making the PRC an exporter of tech products sold around the world.
At the same time that its firms were climbing the value chain and becoming indispensable to the 21st century economy, Taiwan’s democracy was consolidating. The last pre-transition president, Lee Teng-hui, was re-elected in 1996 in the island’s first direct presidential election. He was followed in 2000 by Chen Shui-bian, a member of the island’s long-banned opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party. The partisan pendulum has made two full swings in the years since, underscoring the degree to which Taiwan’s political leadership is accountable to a demanding electorate. At the same time, the island’s media landscape and civil society have provided outlets for a huge range of voices.
During the post-Cold War era, Taiwan’s strategic value to the U.S. appeared to diminish as the zero-sum ideological confrontation that characterized U.S.-China relations in the Cold War gave way to a brisk trading relationship and rich people-to-people ties. Until recently, Sino-U.S. relations blended cooperation and competition, but confrontation seemed unlikely. Taiwan’s value to the U.S. was as a reliable trading partner, a constructive example of democratic flourishing, and a bridge to the mainland. In other words, Taiwan’s political and economic virtues were enough to secure Washington’s favor even after the end of the Cold War. While the U.S. never committed to defend Taiwan unconditionally (and even rebuked Taiwanese leaders who tested that principle), American leaders routinely spoke of Taiwan as a friend and partner worthy of American support. The TRA provided the legal justification and concrete substance for a comprehensive relationship.
In 2016, U.S. policy took a sharp turn under the slogan “America First.” It is difficult to discern what America First really means; its implementation has been fragmented and chaotic, with nearly as many retreats as advances. Nonetheless, the impulse infuses Donald Trump’s every foreign policy utterance. This impulse is a poor fit for the longstanding justifications for U.S.-Taiwan relations. In both style and substance, America Firstism is perilous for Taiwan.
Stylistically, America Firstism is shaped by one of Trump’s best-known traits: his transactional mindset. In the era of America First, allies are only worth keeping if they return value in the immediate term. In an America First world, investing resources to maintain a network of friendly nations that will fight together in the event of an attack on any one of them is a sucker’s bet. The smart play is to make allies pay up. This mentality is deeply threatening to Taiwan, which has little to offer the U.S. as a military partner. Taiwan needs U.S. protection, not because it is helping the U.S., but because it is a friend and partner. But America Firstism is indifferent to claims such as these.
In substance, America Firsters are at best indifferent, and in some cases actively hostile, to the very achievements that made Taiwan attractive to U.S. policymakers during the Cold War and post-Cold War eras. Taiwan’s extraordinary economic development, which the U.S. supported and celebrated for decades, has put it in the cross-hairs of a U.S. administration that seeks to return the U.S. economy to the 1950s. Despite decades of synergistic, mutually profitable economic cooperation with Americans, Taiwan has been saddled with sanctions aimed at forcing steel and aluminum manufacturing back to the American homeland. Taiwan will suffer even more if the U.S. follows through with sanctions on PRC exports, since much of the PRC’s output of finished electronics and other goods is produced by Taiwan-owned firms with important high-value operations on Taiwan.
As for Taiwan’s democracy, while U.S. officials outside of the White House still celebrate the island’s strong record of political reform and human rights, the White House itself has made it clear that these are not priorities on which hard choices will be made. Donald Trump has sought deep funding cuts in programs aimed at promoting human rights and democracy, and he has lauded dictators and human rights abusers around the world. In the age of America First, Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, active civil society, and comprehensive freedom are not the attributes likely to win the favor of the U.S. president.
There is one dimension on which Taiwan might have value to an America First administration: as an obstacle to China’s ambitions.
The TRA does not treat Taiwan as an obstacle to China’s ambitions. On the contrary, its purpose is 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, as well as the people on the China mainland and all other peoples of the Western Pacific area.” The TRA treats Taiwan not as a means to an end, but as an entity worthy of protection in its own right: it defines threats to Taiwan as threats to the “interests of the United States and . . . matters of international concern.” The TRA says U.S.-PRC relations rest “upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means,” and it backs up that expectation with the promise of arms sales and a requirement that the U.S. maintain the ability to resist the coercion of Taiwan. The TRA even offered its support to Taiwan’s nascent democracy movement when it promised that “the preservation and enhancement of the human rights of all the people on Taiwan are hereby reaffirmed as objectives of the United States.”
The genius of the TRA is that it allowed the U.S. to continue substantive relations with Taiwan while building constructive, cooperative relations with Beijing. It did not put Taiwan between the U.S. and China or turn it into an instrument of U.S. policy. This structure supported Taiwan through the final decade of the Cold War, and when the Cold War ended, it supported a democratizing and then democratic Taiwan through the post-Cold War era.
The principles enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act—the pursuit of friendly relations with the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, the protection of Taiwan from coercion, the expectation of peaceful relations, the enhancement of human rights—fostered an environment in which Taiwan survived and even thrived for four decades. These are not America First principles, but they are American principles, reflecting enduring American values. We can only hope that the TRA will survive this new moment in American politics and continue to provide a platform for stable U.S.-Taiwan relations for decades to come.