April 10 marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). At the time of its passage in 1979, the law was an emergency consolation prize created by the U.S. Congress for the Republic of China on Taiwan after the Carter administration switched diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Now, 40 years later, the TRA is treated as a “sacred” text in U.S.-Taiwan relations because it has allowed for stable and strong relations between the two countries—even if at the unofficial level.
For a nation located at a strategically important point in the Western Pacific that is only 80 miles from the PRC, the TRA’s meaning has changed over time as relations among the U.S., Taiwan, and China have gone through ebbs and flows. What has not changed over the course of the 40 years is the symbolic importance of the law. No matter which U.S. political party has been in power in the executive and legislative branches of government, the TRA has served—and still does—as the cornerstone of how the U.S. could interact with and support the government and people of Taiwan. And now, with China increasing its pressure and coercive tactics as its political, economic, and military strength grows, the TRA still provides the U.S. with a framework for how to the support the island-nation of nearly 24 million people.
But after 40 years, the time has come to ask the question: Are symbols and symbolic gestures enough?
Since Donald Trump took office, the U.S. has undertaken a number of actions meant to demonstrate its support for Taiwan. Many of these actions, while lauded at the time as potentially ushering in a new era of U.S.-Taiwan relations, have now become merely symbolic due to lack of use or initiative.
The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, the Taiwan Travel Act, and the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) are all newly passed pieces of legislation that allow for closer and more robust relations. At the time of passage of each law, the general theme in the media (author included) noted how all three showed congressional support for Taiwan—and a sign of stability—during an unpredictable time due to the leadership style of Donald Trump.
The NDAA calls for a number of initiatives to improve the military capabilities of Taiwan and to increase military-to-military exchanges, specifically calling for reciprocal port calls between the two countries’ navies. The NDAA states, “It is the sense of Congress that the United States should conduct bilateral naval exercises, to include pre-sail conferences, in the western Pacific Ocean with the Taiwan navy; and consider the advisability and feasibility of reestablishing port of call exchanges between the United States navy and the Taiwan navy.” The TTA expands the NDAA’s call for military exchanges and authorizes reciprocal visits by high-level officials—not in third-country locations or on the sidelines of international meetings. ARIA—with a section titled “Commitment to Taiwan”—essentially reiterates these calls to action and U.S. support for Taiwan. These three laws articulate a vision of how the U.S. should approach its relations with Taiwan beyond the TRA.
In late 2018, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto embassy for the U.S. in Taiwan, opened a new facility. The cost of the new facility was $255 million—demonstrating quite concretely how much the U.S. values its presence in Taiwan. But the administration chose not to heed the call of the TTA and send a high-level official to Taiwan to celebrate the opening. In April 2019, it was announced that the official opening will occur on May 6, 2019, and AIT released a statement, “We hope that this impressive, modern facility will enhance the work we do and serve as a concrete symbol of our commitment to the U.S.-Taiwan partnership.”
Also, since Tsai Ing-wen became president of Taiwan in 2016, the PRC has increased its pressure campaign against Taiwan. One area that the PRC has focused with great success has been preventing Taiwan from participating in meetings hosted by international organizations. Due to Chinese pressure and demands, Taiwan has been excluded from the World Health Assembly, the annual meeting of the World Health Organization which Taiwan had attended since 2008. The U.S. has continuously worked to help Taiwan achieve orbserver status, but has failed so far. U.S. support for Taiwan’s presence in such organizations is mentioned in the TRA, but the language is not very enthusiastic: “Nothing in this Act may be construed as a basis for supporting the exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from continued membership in any international financial institution or any other international organization.” This position is laudable and demonstrates to Taiwan and the rest of the world the U.S.’s support, but unless definitive progress is made, these efforts are as fruitful as Sisyphus’ daily boulder push.
Another area that the PRC has had some success against Taiwan is in the poaching of Taiwan’s few remaining allies (currently numbering 17). Since 2016, El Salvador, Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic, Panama, and Sao Tome and Principe have switched recognition from Taiwan to China. To put on notice any among Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners that might be wavering, members of Congress have issued harsh statements threatening to cut funding to any future country that seeks to be swayed by China’s pocketbook. The Trump administration also recalled U.S. ambassadors from the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Panama due to the diplomatic switch. However, with the unpredictability of the Trump administration and Trump’s decision to cut aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala over immigration issues, why should countries, particularly ones in Latin America (ever the target of Trump’s tirades), heed such threats regarding relations with Taiwan? Here, too, U.S. moves may be long on noise and symbolism, but short on substance in supporting Taiwan.
Recent U.S. laws, actions, and statements, individually and collectively, point to robust U.S. support for Taiwan and U.S.-Taiwan relations. And relations between the U.S. and Taiwan are perhaps the strongest they have been since 1979. However, symbols and symbolic gestures only go so far when China is out-spending and out-maneuvering the U.S. and Taiwan.
From Symbol to Action
Now, it is not all doom and gloom—the U.S. has taken significant, concrete steps to demonstrate its support of Taiwan, and many of these actions are based in the TRA.
While the U.S. may have failed repeatedly to “send a noteworthy official” to important events in Taiwan, the U.S. has sent an important signal of support through the U.S. military presence at the de facto embassy in Taipei. As AIT spokesperson Amanda Mansour stated, “Since 2005, U.S. government personnel detailed to AIT have included active duty military, including service members from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.” The confirmation that all four branches of the military are represented in some capacity in Taipei is noteworthy. There had been rampant speculation for many months that the U.S. military had a presence in Taiwan, given that it is customary for Marines to be posted at U.S. embassies across the world. While there has not been an official announcement about the placement of uniformed Marines at the AIT office, confirmation of the presence of non-uniformed military personnel in the facility as the 40th anniversary of the TRA approached is a significant statement.
In addition, the U.S. has ramped up efforts to combat Chinese actions on the seas. In the last seven months, the U.S. has conducted five Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) through the Taiwan Strait. The normal area for FONOPs of late has been the South China Sea, but expanding the operations to the Taiwan Strait sends a message to Beijing not to overstep or test limits in the area, which it has done many times—most recently when People’s Liberation Army Air Force planes flew across the median line of the Taiwan Strait that divides Taiwanese and Chinese air space. That action prompted harsh responses from Taipei and Washington. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted in response, “Chinese military provocations won’t win any hearts or minds in Taiwan, but they will strengthen the resolve of people everywhere who value democracy. The Taiwan Relations Act and our commitment are clear.” Tsai Ing-wen also tweeted, “As Commander-in-Chief, I will resolutely protect #Taiwan’s security & sovereignty. As #China continues to challenge regional security, I want to remind the Beijing authorities: do not deliberately provoke; do not instigate trouble; & do not sabotage the cross-strait status quo.” Taiwan’s air force also responded to the incursion.
One of the key components of the TRA is the sale of arms to Taiwan. As China continues to pressure Taiwan militarily, this component of the TRA has become ever more important. The TRA states, “The United States will 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.” It further states, “It is the policy of the United States to 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.” The U.S. has followed through on these commitments by selling over $25 billion of arms since 1979. Most recently, there are reports that the U.S. may sell Taiwan more than 60 F-16 fighter jets, which would boost Taiwan’s ability to counter Chinese incursions or attacks. The U.S. arms sales, in addition to the development of Taiwan’s own defense industry, bolster Taiwan’s capacity to defend itself against—and deter—Chinese aggression or invasion.
While the U.S. may have “failed” some tests in favor of making symbolic gestures, the above actions demonstrate that it is willing to move from symbol to action when needed.
The Future of U.S.-Taiwan Relations
Sailing a carrier group through the Taiwan Strait or selling jets matter because they give Beijing significantly more reason to think that the U.S. would come to the aid of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion or Chinese coercion. A key aim of U.S. policy toward Taiwan should be to keep Taiwan free and autonomous from China. In an interview, Wang Ting-yu, Chair of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, noted Taiwan’s strategic importance in any contest for influence in the region and beyond: “If Taiwan can be secured, [then] the South China Sea is secured, Taiwan Strait secured, the East China Sea . . . secured. . . . In regional politics and security issues, once Taiwan is secured, the Indo-Pacific is secured. . . . If you let Taiwan [be] capable in military, in international diplomatic stage, in regional dialogue, Taiwan [can] put the burden on our shoulder.”
As April 10, the official 40th anniversary of the TRA arrives, the U.S. will face tests and opportunities: Will Washington send a cabinet-level official to Taiwan to celebrate the occasion? Will a similarly high-ranking official from the Taiwanese government make a trip to Washington? Will the U.S. invite Taiwan to participate in a joint naval exercise as called for the 2018 NDAA? Will Trump continue to sell Taiwan arms despite his push for a trade deal with China? Will uniformed Marines be posted at the new AIT facility? Having the TRA, TTA, NDAA, and ARIA on the books is an important symbolic gesture, but it is time to seriously consider implementing their calls for more tangible, concrete demonstrations of support.