Congress Got It Right: Taiwan Relations Act Celebrates 30 Years

Back in the ’70s, the official English spelling and pronunciation of the capital of the Peoples Republic of China, or “Red China” as most then referred to Mao’s creation, kept changing so often that people couldn’t figure out how to pronounce it. When we were finally told that it was to be “Beijing,” a Washington Post reporter asked a waiter in one of Washington’s many Chinese restaurants how one should pronounce the name.

“Is it Peking or Beijing?” the reporter asked.

“Neither,” replied the waiter. “It’s Taipei.”

That was when Taiwan was known as “the Republic of China” and was just emerging as the most successful example of how a once-authoritarian government could transform itself into a vibrant and successful democracy. As the Communists swept to power on the mainland after World War II, the defeated nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, vowing that one day they would return. Mao’s government, meanwhile, vowed that they would one day destroy the nationalists and retake the island.

In those days, both regimes believed themselves the legitimate leaders of China and vied for the loyalty of Chinese wherever they were found. The waiter and millions of others outside the borders of either China chose sides.

Uneasy Truce

The resulting stand-off continues to this day, although Taipei and Beijing have learned to tolerate each other with an uneasy wariness. Taiwan is now largely run by Taiwanese rather than mainland born Chinese, but both groups realize that survival is the best they can hope for, as the mainland continues to build up forces in the area that threaten their very survival. Communist authorities in Beijing consider Taiwan a part of China and warn that any declaration of formal independence could precipitate an attack, so the Chinese on Taiwan walk a constant tightrope, governing their island as an independent nation while acknowledging that it is, in fact, a part of China.

Many observers believe that the Peoples’ Liberation Army would have been unleashed decades ago but for the fact that the mainland Communist government suspects or fears that any military move to take the island would lead to a wider war involving the United States.

The fact, however, is that Taiwan and the United States have been bound together from the day the mainland fell to the Communists. The Nationalist Chinese had been loyal allies during World War II, suffered tremendously at the hands of Imperial Japan, and many even in the United States thought we had been complicit in their defeat by Mao’s forces in the ensuing civil war. American conservatives developed a feeling of kinship with Taiwan that exists even today.

When President Jimmy Carter decided to withdraw U.S. recognition from Taipei in December of 1978 to meet Beijing’s pre-condition for establishing relations with mainland China, Congress reacted almost immediately. The Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) passed overwhelmingly with 339 votes in the House and 85 in the Senate on April 10, 1979. Carter was reportedly furious and wanted to veto it because he and his foreign policy team saw Taiwan as a minor problem that they could ignore as they rushed headlong into a new relationship with Beijing. Carter didn’t veto the bill only because his advisors informed him that an already angry Congress would simply override his veto.

Congress’s anger was motivated by a bipartisan sense that Carter was selling out a friend and ally and because he had promised to consult with congressional leaders before acting. His deal included breaking relations with Taipei and giving notice to the Taiwanese that the U.S. was withdrawing from our Mutual Defense Treaty. Congressional leaders of both parties suspected, as one of the State Department officials working on the question reported later, that Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, didn’t care about Taiwan, but assumed that “normalized” relations with Beijing would give Taipei little choice but to capitulate to Communist demands.

Instead, the TRA ushered in a new and unique bilateral relationship between Washington and Taipei that has endured for 30 years and allowed Taiwan to develop as a democratic economic powerhouse and force for good in a troubled part of the world.

The act itself established semi-official relations through offices set up by the two governments, provided that Taiwan be treated under U.S. laws the same as “foreign countries, nations, states, governments or similar entities,” provided that all treaties and agreements we had made with Taipei would remain in effect, and required the U.S. to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive nature” while we “maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan.”

U.S. Commitment Stands

Beijing was furious and still refuses to accept the law as legitimate, protesting that it represents an “unwarranted intrusion by the United States into the internal affairs of China.” During the course of the last 30 years, they have tested our commitment to Taiwan, built up forces across the straits and hoped that another Jimmy Carter might come along and allow them to force Taipei into submission.

That hasn’t happened yet, of course, thanks to those who stood up for an ally back in 1979 and 1980. Jimmy Carter may not have cared much for the lives and freedom of the 23 million Chinese on Taiwan, but Congress and the American people guaranteed by passing the TRA that Beijing knew the American people wouldn’t allow their government to abandon those on the island.

Although the TRA does not actually commit U.S. forces to come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of an attack, Beijing has never been sure just how far the U.S. might go on behalf of our friends on the island, so they have been careful to avoid an incident that might escalate into violence. As a result, they and their counterparts on the island have managed to resolve many practical problems and the citizens of Taiwan have been able to live their lives without the fear that the U.S. might abandon them at any time to the hardly tender mercies of the Peoples’ Liberation Army.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the passage of the TRA, and anyone who has ever visited the island knows that few acts of Congress before or since have had as admirable an impact.