Asia Program

Events

US-Taiwan Relations: Time to Change Course?

April 05, 1999 // 12:00am

By Zhao Li

As the United States celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) this year, many TRA critics question whether the legislation in fact has helped preserve close American ties with Taipei. The skeptics charge that the United States has made a series of concessions to China over the past twenty years. These concessions include the August 1982 Communiqué with Beijing in which the United States promised to gradually reduce arms sale to Taiwan, the 1995 Taiwan policy review which concluded that the president and vice president of the Republic of China (ROC) were not to visit the United States unless in transit, and President Clintonís public statement of the "three noís" in Shanghai in 1998. To the critics, the policy that allowed the United States to seek a better relationship with Beijing in 1979 has since sacrificed Taiwanís interest and security. They argue that Taiwan has grown into a democracy and it is time for the United States to reconsider its Taiwan policy so as to accommodate the will of the people of Taiwan.

Is it time for the United States to consider recognizing Taiwan as an independent political entity? Last week, Stanley Roth, Assistant Secretary of State, reaffirmed the current US policy toward Taiwan. At a conference jointly sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), Roth called the TRA a "resounding success" and asserted that the TRA will continue to serve US interests well into the twenty-first century. In reiterating the principle of the TRA, the Administration has made a wise decision.

The TRA was enacted to create an institution the AIT that would manage and maintain the close relationship between Taipei and Washington after the official US recognition of the PRC. It also sought to provide Taiwan with a measure of security guarantee after Washington terminated its Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan. Over the past two decades, both goals have been realized with remarkable success.

Despite the administrative and logistical difficulties in the early days, AIT officials focused their attention on substantive issues in the relationship. One of these issues was the human rights condition in Taiwan. Many who lived through the martial law period appreciated the pressure the United States kept on the Nationalist government in the early 1980s. The persistent efforts by the US officials to support democratic movements helped preserve the opposition forces in Taiwan. Some of the TRAís critics who advocate a changed course for US-Taiwan relations were once beneficiaries of the unofficial relationship.

The TRA contributed to an environment in which the people of Taiwan were able to concentrate their efforts on building a vibrant political democracy and a strong economy that has withstood the recent Asian financial crisis. Politically, Taiwan today has an elected president and an elected multi-party parliament. Commercially, Taiwan sends one fourth of its total export to the United States. Bilateral trade between the two countries exceeds $50 billion annually. Taiwan has also concluded bilateral negotiations with the US concerning its application to the World Trade Organization ñ ahead of the PRC.

The United States has also kept its promise to provide for Taiwanís defense by supplying Taiwan with F-16s, modern military training and modern technology. In 1996, the Clinton Administration demonstrated an unwavering commitment to peace and stability in the Strait. It dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to counter Chinaís missile threats against the island. The United States is also committed to providing Taiwan with the skills and training necessary to integrate existing military capabilities to carry out effective defense.

Nonetheless, the critics ask, could the United States have helped Taiwan achieve this remarkable progress without severing diplomatic ties with Taipei? The answer is no. Normalization of relations with the PRC, which necessitated the establishment of the unofficial relationship with Taipei, is a component of a broader US strategy to address Chinaís growing importance for regional peace and stability. During the past two decades, this calculated strategy has yielded significant benefits both to the United States and to the region. The United States has maintained its presence in the region via close ties with Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Its military presence in Japan and Korea serves as a stabilizing factor in East Asia. US engagement with China has encouraged China to become more respectful of the rule of law and international norms. An isolated China with one of the worldís largest conventional military forces, equipped with nuclear arsenals, would have posed an even greater threat to Taiwan and to the region.

Charges that the United States has made concessions to Beijing regarding Taiwan issues suggest that the United States has made a choice between the PRC and Taiwan. However, the East Asian strategic equation cannot be seen as a "zero-sum game." Improvements in US-China relations often go hand in hand with improvements in cross-strait relations. Deterioration in one frequently contributes to deterioration in the other. All three parties should carefully balance their goals and actions to contribute to a "win-win" situation in the Taiwan Strait.

US-China ties helped bring about economic and political reforms in China. These reforms in turn opened up a potential market with 1.3 billion consumers to global trade, much of which benefited Taiwanís entrepreneurs. At the end of 1998, bilateral trade across the Taiwan Strait reached $22.5 billion, making the PRC Taiwanís third largest trade partner, behind only the United States and Japan. Personal and commercial ties across the Strait have created a positive environment for cross-strait dialogue. Taiwan has every reason to believe that these sweeping changes provide a positive context for cross-strait dialogues and it has a vested interest in a positive US-PRC relationship.

It is within this broad strategic context of East Asia security that the United States will continue to engage both the PRC and Taiwan. At the conference last week, Assistant Secretary of State Roth expressed the Administrationís confidence in Beijing and Taipeiís creativity to work out "interim agreements." If such interim agreements are achieved in combination with specific confidence building measures, it will prove to be the biggest success yet in cross-strait relations.

Even an effective policy is not immune from criticism. The critics usefully remind us of an aspect that the United States government has frequently failed to address in its foreign policy ñ the perceived highhanded, unilateral approach in taking actions without proper consultation with allies. For example, President Nixon had hardly given notice to Japan when he announced that Henry Kissinger had met with the leaders of Beijing in 1971. Coincidentally, in 1978 President Carter gave the president of the ROC only a two-hour notice in the middle of the night that the United States had decided to break off official ties. The American policy-makers would be well advised to conduct close consultation with the leaders of Taiwan before taking more actions on potentially controversial issues regarding the future of the 22 million people. The trade-off of not having to deal with an autocratic government is that Washington must allow the democratic government of Taiwan to lay the political foundation for sustaining public support for a close partnership with the United States.

The recent debate in the US Congress about the possible inclusion of Taiwan in the Theater Missile Defense system (TMD) ñ an undeveloped and unproven defense technology ñ has raised concerns about yet another unilateral American action that could cause a dangerous arms race in the Taiwan Strait. Much of the debate involves whether Congress should provide Taiwan with the TMD. But no one has bothered to find out Taiwanís intentions. Will Taiwan be able or even willing to share the enormous cost of the TMD? Further, without a guarantee that the TMD will be deployable and effective, what would the consequences be should the PRC significantly increase both the quantity and quality of the missiles aimed at Taiwan? What will be the political response from the PRC? Would TMD deployment close doors on future cross-strait dialogues?

Many informed analysts believe that Taiwanís future does not depend on arms build-up or the provision of the TMD. In the short run, further integration of existing defense capacity is the most effective way to increase Taiwanís security. In the long run, Taiwanís best defense is to continue to perfect democratic governance, expand global trade, strengthen its economy, and promote stability in the Taiwan Strait. This was precisely the course that the TRA was created to facilitate twenty years ago. And this should continue to be the goal of the United States government in pursuing its US-Taiwan relations in the twenty-first century.

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