The Taiwan Relations Act Conference: Taiwan-US Relations & the Future

Apr. 15, 2019

Written By: Herica Huang (黃翊筑)
Photo Credit: International College Provisional Office、International Community Radio Taipei


On April 15, 2019, International Community Radio Taipei (ICRT), the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), and the International College Provisional Office- National Taiwan University (NTU), cohosted a half-day conference to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act. The American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei sponsored the event. Former and current Taiwan government officials, U.S. representatives to Taiwan, and ICRT personnel participated with NTU administrators, faculty, and students to discuss the history of Taiwan-US relations since 1979 and the future of the bilateral relationship. A surprise guest – Terry Gou, the founder and chairman of corporate giant Foxconn – drew special media attention in light of rumors he would soon announce his candidacy for President of Taiwan, which he did on April 17.
The conference opened with introductory remarks by General Manager of ICRT Tim Berge and NTU Executive Vice President Lo Ching-Hu. Two keynote addresses followed: the first by the Director of the American Institute in Taiwan Brent Christensen, and the second by Chen Jien-Jen, who served both as the Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1999 to 2000, and as Taiwan’s Representative to the United States from 2000 to 2004. Two panel discussions followed. William Foreman, the President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, moderated the first panel on the subject of “The TRA: Foundation for Progress (1979 to the Present),” and ICRT Newscaster Gavin Phipps moderated the second panel discussion on “The TRA: New Opportunities (Present to Future).”

Introductory Remarks

Hosting the event, ICRT’s Deejay Joey Chou welcomed the participants and introduced the topic of the day — the relationship between Taiwan and the United States, seen from the perspectives of the past, the present, and future significance of the Taiwan Relations Act. In his opening remarks, Tim Berge, General Manager of ICRT, noted that he had lived in Taiwan for many decades, and worked at ICRT for more than twenty years. He had heard people of all ages and occupations express their appreciation for the radio station. From taxi drivers to students, businessmen to politicians, from mayors to a president, they had told him how much ICRT had helped to improve their English. Looking to the future, ICRT hoped to continue to serve Taiwan both locally and internationally, making English learning more accessible, but also building a bilingual environment for Taiwan, and at the same time, helping Taiwan to stake out a stronger position on the global stage.

Professor Ching-Hua Lo, the Executive Vice President of NTU, in his opening comments welcomed all the guests and attendees, and expressed a special birthday greeting to ICRT on its 40th anniversary. Vice President Lo noted that the closest and most relatable connection that NTU had with the United States was the large number of NTU faculty and staff members who had received advanced degrees from U.S. universities. Noting the remarkable accomplishments that Taiwan and the United States had jointly achieved, Vice President Lo expressed his eager anticipation of what the future might hold for cooperation between Taiwan and the United States.

Brent Christensen, AIT Director, on US –Taiwan Relations

Director Christensen noted that the ongoing AIT@40 campaign celebrates the 40 years of friendship and cooperation between United States and Taiwan. In March, the campaign had focused on celebrating the shared values between US and Taiwan, and this month, the celebration would address bilateral trade and investment as another foundation of the U.S. – Taiwan partnership. Although the formal diplomatic relationship between the United States and Taiwan had changed in 1979, the United States nonetheless still maintained a strong unofficial relationship with Taiwan.

Director Christensen described the “four promotes” of U.S. policy toward Taiwan: promoting the U.S. – Taiwan security relationship, U.S. – Taiwan economic and commercial cooperation, U.S.-Taiwan people-to-people ties, and Taiwan’s participation in the international community. Christensen said that the main message he wanted to deliver at NTU was promoting Taiwan’s participation in the international community.

“Taiwan has established itself as a model of an exemplary partner in addressing the world’s most serious challenges,” Director Christensen said, and yet Taiwan was not recognized and even excluded from participation from many cooperative international activities. Although the importance of global cooperation was little discussed among nations, but nonetheless global problems continue, which in turn means that global solutions are essential. This was the reason behind the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. Countries realized that stronger international organizations were important. It is essential to understand that people around the world need to come together despite differences of race, religion, language, or any other barrier because every nation, and every person, has an important role in solving the problems the world is facing.

Director Christensen noted Taiwan’s remarkable achievements and contributions to the international community its exclusion and the unfriendly attitudes Taiwan has faced. Taiwanese scientists not only recently helped contributed to the first black hole photo, but the expertise of Taiwanese engineers and medical personnel exceeded many expectations in helping Taiwan become a global leader in the public health field. “And we want Taiwan to share that with the rest of the world,” Director Christensen said, explaining that the world was missing out by excluding Taiwan from global problem solving. “Taiwan is a valuable partner, it has been and will continue to be part of the story,” he stated.

Compared to powerful nations, Taiwan might appear to be relatively small and weak, yet it has so much to contribute, the Director said. By preventing resources from entering Taiwan and restrictions on Taiwan passport holders, the world’s welfare was diminished. International organizations were intended to join nations together to solve the world problems, but excluding Taiwan only weakened the global community. Director Christensen concluded his remarks by reiterating the commitment the United States to assisting in ensuring Taiwan’s security, to its continuing economic prosperity, and helping the world to see Taiwan for what it is, and at the same time, encouraging other nations to do the same.

Former Foreign Minister Chen Chien-Jen Addresses the TRA’s Significance

Chen Chien-Jen, the former MOFA Minister, introduced his talk by sharing his experience of the introduction of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). He said, “Certain events clearly mark an important transition or a meaningful milestone in the course of history,” and the TRA definitely became one of those remarkable events. Minister Chen not only witnessed the ongoing establishment of the TRA as Taiwan’s Foreign Minister but also as Taiwan’s representative in Washington. Many people were shocked and even devastated when the United States announced its break in diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but at the same time, Taiwan acknowledged the importance and impact of TRA. TRA served as an important tool in improving the economic situation in Taiwan, as well as the evolution of Taiwan into a democracy.

The Birth of the Taiwan Relations Act

Minister Chen focused in four aspects of the TRA: how the TRA came to be written, the ingenuity of the TRA, the contributions of the TRA, and the future of the TRA. The TRA’s origin began with the U.S. Government’s unilateral decision to change U.S. relations with Taiwan and Beijing. Under President Carter’s Administration, there were no officially proposed legislation to govern future relations between the United States and Taiwan. The draft legislation consisted of three parts: first, future relations between the United States and Taiwan; second, the role and staff of the American Institute in Taiwan; and last, some administrative details. Although the draft cited the relationship between United States and Taiwan, it was vaguely defined. Moreover, there were no sections of the draft law dealing with Taiwan’s security, its military, and the already existing U.S. legislation affecting Taiwan. Numerous details and key aspects of the bilateral relationship were ignored. It was therefore left to the U.S. Congress to devise legislation that would protect the interests of the United States in Taiwan, and would serve as the basis for maintaining good relations with Taiwan.
Displeased with the Carter Administration’s unfair treatment of Taiwan, the Congress added additional regulations to the draft legislation. With the assistance of U.S. citizens in Taiwan and Taiwanese in the United States, the Congress was able to draft the 18 sections of the TRA. In 1979, the TRA was passed by Congress and signed by President Carter, establishing a solid U.S. commitment to Taiwan. As unhappy as Beijing was with the new legislation, it could not do much to change the situation.

The Ingenuity of the Taiwan Relations Act

Four key features distinguished the TRA: its uniqueness, practicality, flexibility, and durability. The TRA has been the only U.S. law that innovatively used domestic laws to solve an international problem, which sets it apart from other U.S. legislation. TRA is also a practical compromise between U.S. national requirements and the international reality. In addition, the contents in the TRA provide room for ambiguity and different interpretations. It was forty years ago that the TRA was signed, and despite the changes since then, the TRA remained the same since the day it was signed, and it is still functioning properly. Minister Chen said that the TRA showed the creativity of the U.S. Congress. The wisdom and achievements of the members of the Congress at that time should not be forgotten when talking about TRA.

The Contribution of the Taiwan Relations Act

When the TRA was signed in 1979, people did not know what was going to happen to the world. China was not as powerful as it is today, and Taiwan was still a developing country with an uncertain future. Under these circumstances, the TRA served as a structure to maintain the balance among the United States, China, and Taiwan.
From 1989 to 1991, the world drastically changed. The collapse of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the USSR, and the end of Cold War led to the rise of a new world order. At the same time, the Asia-Pacific area entered a period of peace and prosperity. Taiwan quickly rose to become a country with freedom, openness, democracy, and an expanding economy such as had never before been seen in Chinese history. Meanwhile, China became the country with the second largest economy and third strongest military in the world. Although the TRA might not have directly contributed to the drastic global changes, the TRA undoubtedly played as an important, constructive role behind the scenes. The constructive role of the TRA directly influenced Taiwan especially, and because of stability and security provided by the TRA, Taiwan was able to ensure a more peaceful environment for its people.

The Future of the Taiwan Relations Act

Relations between United States and China now growing more and more complicated and competitive, which in turn has affected the relations among the United States, China, and Taiwan. Mr. Chen said that he sees no reason, however, why the United States might abolish the TRA anytime soon. The existence of the TRA helped the United States to take a powerful independent stand internationally, despite the opposition of China to the TRA. As long as the United States remains powerful enough, and has the will, the TRA will continue to play a significant role. Just as it has in the past, it will continue to do so in the future.
Minister Chen concluded his talk with a personal expression of hope for the future: “I am concerned to see the reemergence of great power confrontation instead of cooperation, conflict instead of conciliation. I sincerely hope and pray that the TRA will not only help to stabilize the situation in this region, but also create an environment conductive to a lasting peace and a win-win-win situation for all involved. That ought to be the true legacy of the TRA.”

Panel Discussions

The TRA, Foundation for Progress (1979 to the Present)

The President of AmCham Taipei, William Foreman, moderated the first panel discussion on the subject of the “TRA — Foundation for Progress (1979 to the Present.” The three panelists — the AIT Chairman James Moriarty, former AmCham Taipei Chairman Robert Parker, and Academia Sinica research fellow Joanne Chang – offered varying perspectives on the origins and challenges of the TRA.

Mr. Parker said that at the time the TRA was drafted, Taiwan was far more dependent on the United States. People in Taiwan had strong feelings when they heard President Carter’s announcement on breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The Taiwanese people could not understand the decision and even blamed the Americans in Taiwan for what was happening. Nonetheless, the American community in Taiwan overcame the political barrier of a broken relationship and demonstrated that they still embraced and cherished the friendships and relations they had established in Taiwan. The TRA also gave them hope because it served as a legal framework for the structure of their lives and work in Taiwan. At that time, the United States could have chosen just to do business with China, but AmCham in Taiwan laid down a policy based on the TRA through which U.S. business ties with Taiwan could continue.

Professor Chang noted that the TRA could be seen as a simple piece of legislation reinforcing the ties between United States and Taiwan. In fact, however, the history behind the efforts to create the TRA were extremely complicated. The TRA not only provided a legal basis for the relations between United States and Taiwan, but also significantly reinforced U.S. support for Taiwan’s security. It provided a stable basis for relations that have lasted forty years. Ms. Chang said that instead of talking about the setbacks that the TRA represented for Taiwan-U.S. relations, we should focus on the challenges and that the act had faced. The implementation of TRA was inconsistent over the course of its first twenty years, but the situation improved over the next twenty years. There was, however, no guarantee for continuing consistency in the future. Both Tiawan and the United States would have to make efforts to ensure progress in the future.

AIT Chairman Moriarty observed that “China views itself as a competitor to the United States, so the United States has to see China as a competitor as well which causes the U.S.-China relationship to be more inflexible and more difficult.” In this context Moriarty pointed out that the TRA had played a key role not only in maintaining a stable US-Taiwan relationship but also in the U.S. relationship with China. Absent the TRA, Moriarty said, the economic and people-to-people connections between Taiwan and the United States would be even more challenging.

TRA: New Opportunities (From the Present to the Future)

ICRT’s Gavin Phipps moderated the second panel discussion — “The TRA: New Opportunities (From the Present to the Future)” — focusing on the current status of the TRA and future changes in the triangular relations among the United States, China, and Taiwan. The panelists included Minister without Portfolio for Digital Affairs Audrey Tang; KMT legislator-at-large and cofounder of TEDxTaipei, Jason Hsu; and Tunghai University Assistant Professor of Political Science, Albert Chiu.

Professor Chiu reminded the audience it was important to recognize that the TRA is as important to the United States as it is to Taiwan. Looking to the future, the TRA already serves as a legal foundation for new and future proposed U.S. legislation including the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act and the more recently proposed Taiwan Assurance Act. There were many other U.S. pieces of legislation that would depend on the Trump administration for implementation, a view that was echoes by Legislator Jason Hsu.

Minister Tang noted that the triangular relationships among the United States, China, and Taiwan remain complicated. Taiwan needed to focus on what mattered the most in this triangular relationship, and excelling in intellectual technology would be a key advantage for Taiwan since machine learning and technology were playing crucial roles in the world. Therefore, Taiwan should leverage its digital strength. Where Taiwan stands in the world mainly depended on the capacity of its people, and the Taiwanese must not underestimate themselves.

Q&A from the Floor

After each panel discussion, questions from the floor were taken. The founder and chairman of Foxconn, Terry Gou, asked the first panel about the stance of the United States toward Taiwan’s next democratic election, and whether the United States would support whomever was elected as the next President of Taiwan. AIT Chairman Moriarty responded that the United States would always respect the democratic decisions of the Taiwanese people no matter who was elected or from which party.

The audience had several questions about the growing power of China. In response, the panelists acknowledged rapid changes in the world but emphasized the U.S. commitment to Taiwan. Moreover, while China might be rising, it did not mean the United States was declining in power. The United States would continue to support its multifaceted security, economic, and other relationships with Taiwan.

Another key concern of attendees were continuing cyberattacks against Taiwan. Minister Tang noted it is very challenging to create a cyber defense, but people were working hard to create a defense in both the public and private sectors. Although technology can have negative effects such as cyberspace bullying, it can also produce positive outcomes. Professor Chiu mentioned that young people could contribute to digital diplomacy and by this means enhance Taiwan’s standing in the world. Since there were no limitations in cyber space, the internet, if used properly, could serve as an excellent platform to let the world know more about Taiwan.

Last but not least, the panelists encouraged the attendees to be mentally prepared to move forward. Power mattered in the past, matters now, and will always matter. Nonetheless, Tiawan had made enormous progress in the past, and it is important now to focus on how to make further progress.

Concluding Remarks

William Stanton, the former Director of AIT (2009-12) and currently a professor at National Taiwan University, concluded the conference by briefly providing his views on the TRA’s positive consequences for Taiwan-U.S. relations. The TRA in 1971 in effect reversed some of the negative implications of the first and second joint communiques between the PRC and the United States and helped ensured that the 3rd joint communique of 1982 did not have the intended effect of gradually ending us arms sales to Taiwan.

In particular, the TRA made clear that “the U.S. decision to establish diplomatic relations with the PRC rests upon the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means” and that “the preservation and enhancement of the human rights of all the people on Taiwan are hereby reaffirmed as U.S. objectives.” It also made clear that the United States would support Taiwan’s security: “The U.S. 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.”
There were many disappointments in maintaining U.S. relations with Taiwan since the TRA was enacted, but one key often overlooked achievement was the establishment of the American Institute in Taiwan which ensured that we would always be able to maintain a stable relationship and lines of communication no matter what difficulties we faced. The TRA was also ultimately successful in establishing a bilateral relationship that would ultimately call attention to Taiwan’s democracy as it developed.

Given Taiwan’s importance as a “beacon of democracy” and its strategic military importance, the United States needs to build in the success of the TRA. The United States needs to do much more to support Taiwan and strengthen its relationship with the United States. A priority, for example, should be a bilateral free trade agreement. Taiwan will continue to face regional and international challenges. “We need to be realistic about the problems we face, but also realistic about the solutions,” Professor Stanton concluded.

©  International College of National Taiwan University. All Rights Reserved. Powered by Cheeridea