April 10, 2019 marks forty years since the adoption of the Taiwan Relations Act. When President Jimmy Carter announced in December 1978 that the United States would, as part of normalization of U.S.-PRC relations, sever diplomatic ties and terminate a mutual security treaty with the Republic of China (Taiwan), the U.S. and Taiwan faced an urgent question: What would the U.S. do to give the government and people of Taiwan some degree of assurance that Washington would not abandon its newly vulnerable longtime ally. A major part of the answer was the Taiwan Relations Act, which starts with a statement of purpose that links ongoing support for Taiwan with broad U.S. foreign policy interests: “To help maintain peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific and to promote the foreign policy of the United States by authorizing the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan, and for other purposes.” The TRA created a durable foundation for an unofficial relationship between the U.S. and Taiwan, with provisions addressing Taiwan’s security, arms purchases, human rights, and participation in international agreements and organizations.
Relations between the United States and Taiwan have evolved over four decades. Taiwan has transitioned peacefully from authoritarian rule to become a vibrant liberal democracy with a strong record on human rights. The relationship has been notably positive and stable throughout the last decade. At the same time, Taiwan is facing a more formidable challenge from across the Taiwan Strait. A much wealthier and more powerful China has shifted the military balance strongly in its favor, and burgeoning trade and investment ties have given Beijing much potential economic leverage. In recent years, the robustness and reality of U.S. security commitments to Taiwan and the region have faced growing doubts. In these changing contexts, U.S.-Taiwan relations are again moving into a new phase as the TRA turns forty.
In this collection of essays, Jerome A. Cohen, Jacques deLisle, Vincent Wei-cheng Wang, Shelley Rigger, June Teufel Dreyer, Russell Hsiao and Marzia Borsoi-Kelly, and Thomas J. Shattuck offer their perspectives on the past, present, and possible future of the Taiwan Relations Act, U.S.-Taiwan relations, and the role of China in the U.S-Taiwan relationship.