Home / Articles / The Taiwan Relations Act: Charting a Stable Course for the U.S. in Asia
The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) is a model of legal ingenuity spurred by political necessity. Jimmy Carter inherited Richard Nixon’s challenge, which was to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Nixon took the first step in February 1972 with his famous trip to Beijing, where he, Henry Kissinger, and China’s leaders concluded the Shanghai Communiqué. The Communiqué gave ambiguous assurance to China about Taiwan. The U.S. government “acknowledged” the PRC’s claim to the island and stated that it “does not challenge” that claim, but the United States never made clear what this meant, and the U.S. has never subsequently clarified its formal position. But what the U.S. said in the Shanghai Communiqué was enough at that time, given the fact that Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai and Nixon and Kissinger wanted to cooperate to balance the power of the rising Soviet Union.
Although that cooperation began in early 1972, it took until December 15, 1978 for formal diplomatic relations to be agreed on. Even then, the two sides could not deal with all the issues. The Carter administration, nevertheless, decided to bite the bullet that Nixon had avoided and establish formal relations with the Mainland, breaking formal relations with the Kuomintang (KMT) government on Taiwan. This was a terrific blow to the KMT government and a great concern to everyone on Taiwan. It was also a daring step in American politics, given the support that the Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT government still enjoyed within America’s Republican Party and the understandable worries that many in the U.S. had for Taiwan’s future. Nixon, of course, had been a Republican president and a notorious anti-communist, which gave him the domestic political freedom to make the first move toward recognizing China—a move that no Democratic Party president could have politically survived in 1972. Carter, a more insecure Democratic president, had the tougher task of completing the job that Nixon had started.
But the two Communiqués left open the status of Taiwan, and the U.S. insisted, as part of the deal for normalizing relations with the People’s Republic, that Washington would continue to have non-official, non-diplomatic, but cultural and economic ties with Taiwan. The question was how to do it.
The Birth of the Taiwan Relations Act
Many members of Congress were very uneasy about Taiwan’s future. I was in Taiwan in 1978 at several points. I saw the terrific anxiety of the people there about what was to come. They needed further assurance because it was not clear what the U.S. would do. Many people thought that the establishment of U.S. diplomatic relations with China would merely be a first step that would soon lead to the collapse of the Republic of China on Taiwan, the way the withdrawal of American troops in 1973 soon led to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. The problem was how to prevent that, and the U.S. Congress, in imaginative negotiations—ones that took several months—with the executive branch including the State Department and others, came up with a law.
That law, the Taiwan Relations Act, is not an international agreement. It is merely the unilateral act of one government saying, “This is our interpretation of the situation.” It had two functions, mainly. One was to warn Beijing that any non-peaceful attempt to solve the problem by taking over Taiwan would be regarded by the United States as a grave threat to security in the Western Pacific. That is, in diplomatic language, it could lead to military opposition by the United States.
It had a second major function: How do you continue to give the Republic of China on Taiwan the continuing necessary legal status in the United States that it had enjoyed when the two had formal diplomatic relations? The U.S. had to find some substitute arrangement so that, for example, if somebody from the Republic of China wanted to come into U.S. courts, they could come in just the way they used to, and if somebody wanted to sue Taiwan officials or people, that it be no less, and no more, possible than before 1979. The U.S. wanted to try to give Taiwan all the continuing privileges and benefits that the Republic of China enjoyed when the two maintained diplomatic relations even though Carter had severed formal ties.
The key was really the first function because, when the U.S. ended diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it affected the 1954 mutual defense treaty between the ROC and the United States. The abrogation of diplomatic relations meant an end to the defense treaty. The U.S. terminated the treaty with China’s agreement in an orderly way. The defense treaty had a provision like many treaties: If you wanted to withdraw, you could give one year’s notice that you were going to do so, and that is what the U.S. did.
But what would substitute for the defense treaty? The answer, in part, was the Taiwan Relations Act, which was to provide comfort to Taiwan. Of course, the TRA was not formally a treaty, but only a law, and the language on defense cooperation is very vague, even by the standards of mutual defense treaties. In effect, it says to Beijing, “If you take non-peaceful steps, we will consider this a very grave threat to our security.” It doesn’t say, “And we will come to the defense of Taiwan.” But it leaves open this possibility and implies that the U.S. has the discretion to do so. The NATO agreement also has this kind of language, but people understand the context, and over time, vague words take on added weight. Forty years later, the Taiwan Relations Act is rightly regarded as having become very important.
The question Beijing has had from the day formal relations were established has been: How long would the new U.S. relationship with Taiwan go on, especially the arms sales that the TRA provided for? How long could the United States be allowed to provide arms to a government it no longer recognized, and with which it no longer had diplomatic relations? Once the U.S. had recognized the People’s Republic of China on the Mainland as the only legal government of China, how could it justify continuing to provide arms to a regime that no longer was in Washington’s eyes the legal government of China and that was condemned as an illegitimate regime by the newly recognized legal government of China? These questions have been a source of continuing tension in Washington’s negotiations and discussions with Beijing since 1979. Forty years on, no one has solved this problem.
Arms Sales under the Taiwan Relations Act
In February 2019, Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver offered assurances that the U.S. will continue to provide Taiwan with all the arms necessary to defend itself. That is what the TRA says: for Taiwan to defend itself, not to attack the Mainland. Taiwan had to give up that idea, which Chiang Kai-shek had endorsed, with the unrealistic hope that he might renew the civil war with the communists and retake the Mainland.
In the 1980s, Beijing thought the arms sales problem would be settled rather quickly. In the “Third Communiqué” issued by the U.S. and the PRC in 1982, the Reagan administration assured Beijing that, as tensions relaxed across the Strait and as the situation improved, the U.S. would gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan. But the end to arms sales that Beijing hoped for has not happened. The U.S. formula for arms sales that has prevailed is not the one Beijing believed it had secured after negotiations on several occasions, but, rather, the Taiwan Relations Act’s formula. Under the TRA, the U.S. remains obligated to continue to “make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” For Beijing, this is more than a thorn in its side.
Arms sales are symbolically important, but they also are a very practical question because on both sides of the Strait, military planners that are constantly considering, if force has to be used, what will happen? Would there be a three-day war? Would there be a long, drawn-out contest? Would the United States come to Taiwan’s aid? Would Japan join in? What damage would be done to China? Could such a war threaten the Chinese leadership’s grip on power if China could not quickly and effectively subdue Taiwan? Would war decimate not only the people on Taiwan, but also the people in Shanghai and other Mainland places?
Many people think that war will never happen, but that Beijing will use other means, and that Beijing’s recent intensification of pressures against Taiwan—military, political, economic, and psychological—will gradually erode the will of the people in Taiwan. Well over a million Taiwanese are living and working in the Mainland, and some observers think more Taiwanese will move there, becoming more vulnerable to Chinese influence. Some expect that the Mainland will use continuing and greater economic incentives to seduce the people in Taiwan and that their will to resist will be sapped. We don’t know, but none of this seems likely, judging from the evidence we now have about attitudes in Taiwan. Still, a lot depends on what leaders in the United States say that reassures, or fails to reassure, Taiwan, and how Taiwan—as well as the Mainland—behaves in cross-Strait relations.
China-Taiwan Relations in the 21st Century
My former student, Ma Ying-jeou, accomplished something very impressive during his two terms as president in Taiwan (2008-2016). He managed to make over 20 agreements with the Mainland (on economic matters) despite the Mainland’s longstanding positions that: Beijing will never treat Taiwan on an equal basis; the central government of China is in Beijing and Taiwan’s government is merely a government of one of China’s provinces; and there is no possibility of there being “two Chinas,” two Chinese governments.
How did Ma do it? He managed to get China to join Taiwan in making use of the supposedly “unofficial” organizations each side had established—Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation and the Mainland’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait. As a result, the cross-Strait agreements were not agreements between the government in Beijing and the government in Taiwan; they were agreements between semi-official organizations at most, what might be called “white glove” organizations. In reality, they were agreements between the governments, but they did not say so because that would be unacceptable to Beijing.
This was a classic example of what Holmes Welch, a wonderful American scholar, in the late 1950s, called the “Chinese art of make believe”—the ability, if required, to engage in imaginative methods, often using euphemisms or fictions, to reach agreements that would not otherwise be possible. Ma and his Mainland counterparts, using these devices, concluded 23 important agreements. In 2012, when asked by the Taiwan media what I thought of Ma’s prospects during his second term (which was about to begin), I said: “If he can manage to go on making agreements with the Mainland without sacrificing the island’s security, he should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.”
Sadly, Ma’s successor and current president, the very able Tsai Ing-wen (of the Democratic Progressive Party), has not convinced the Mainland of the sincerity of her earnest efforts not to rock the boat of cross-Strait relations by not pushing for formal Taiwan independence. Since she came to office in 2016, the Mainland has refused to implement some of the agreements that Ma concluded. This has had a very negative effect on cross-Strait relations and is part of the pressure tactics that the Mainland is bringing to bear on Taiwan under Tsai.
The PRC not only conducts military maneuvers around Taiwan and sends military planes to encircle the island, and so on. China is not only squeezing Taiwan economically. Beijing is also refusing to deal with Tsai’s government in Taiwan, even though it was legitimately elected. Beijing refuses to recognize that the majority of people on the island do not want to be integrated with China.
This has created a very difficult situation for Taiwan. Tsai is seeking greater U.S. help. Tsai is also trying to implement her “New Southbound Policy,” in an effort to reduce Taiwan’s economic reliance on the Mainland by expanding its relationships with Southeast Asian countries and even Australia. This effort is having some positive effect, but Taiwan still faces serious economic problems, in part because the Mainland itself is having economic problems. As China’s economy continues to slow down, Taiwan has greater problems. And Taiwan’s economic dependence on the Mainland also means political vulnerability.
All of these issues are occurring at a time when the U.S. is confronting a very volatile situation in the Greater China region. Most people are not focusing on Taiwan as part of the U.S.’s troubled relations with China. There is more concern with other issues: trade disputes and Trump’s attempt to use trade policies to press China to open its economy in the way it keeps pledging to do; the South China Sea disputes and examples of China’s “aggression” in that region; and the dangerous situation with North Korea and its nuclear arms program. We seem to have many more immediate problems than those concerning Taiwan.
The Importance of the Taiwan Issue
But the ultimate challenge in U.S.-China relations—and one that may be coming back to bite us again—is Taiwan. The American people may be confronted with a huge issue that is full of ambiguity: If push comes to shove and military conflict breaks out in the Taiwan Strait or China takes other serious coercive measures against Taiwan, are we going to say: “Look, we have so many headaches in the Middle East, we’re involved in an endless mess in Syria. We’ve not succeeded in leaving Afghanistan. Although the war has ended in Iraq, we haven’t gotten out of there. There is no satisfactory solution to any of our involvements in the Middle East, including Iran and Yemen. Are we now going to get involved in a war with China over Taiwan?”
Beijing’s increased military capability means that it could do a lot of damage to U.S. forces and even the United States, with its huge arsenal of missiles and many long-range nuclear weapons, as well as its regular military forces and conventional assets. Faced with this reality, are Americans going to say what British Prime Minister Chamberlain said when Hitler threatened Czechoslovakia before World War II: “It’s a little country far away”? What are we going to do?
The Taiwan Relations Act, repeatedly and recently reaffirmed by senior U.S. officials, says we should come to the aid of Taiwan. Well, will we? And to what extent? One of the challenges is that most Americans don’t know much about Taiwan. The typical story, maybe it’s apocryphal, but I think it’s plausible and may be indicative of a much larger vulnerability in the U.S. commitment to Taiwan: An American woman was interviewed by an American journalist who asked, “What do you think about Taiwan?” And she said, “Oh, I love Thai food.”