After disastrous Carter and Clinton administrations, time to reset U.S.-Taiwan relations

Special to

By Parris H. Chang

In recent months, both chambers of the U.S. Congress have passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and the “six assurances” as cornerstones of U.S.-Taiwan Relations.

Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping on Jan. 1, 1979.
Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping on Jan. 1, 1979.

The six assurances, which were given to Taiwan by then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan in July 1982, include U.S. pledges not to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan, not to hold prior consultation with China on the sales of specific weapons systems, not to play a mediation role between Taiwan and China, not to pressure Taiwan to enter into negotiation with China, not to revise the Taiwan Relations Act, and not to change the U.S. position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan, i.e. not to accept China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan.

Members of the U.S. Congress have been critical of the failures of President Barack Obama’s administration to fully and faithfully implement provisions of the TRA and the six assurances. Hence they gave a bipartisan approval of the concurrent resolution to convey to the Obama administration a strong “sense of Congress” regarding the U.S. support to Taiwan.

On July 18, the Republican National Convention included, for the first time, the “six assurances” in the Party’s official platform.

Calling Taiwan ” a loyal friend of America,” the Republican platform also expressed support for the timely sales of defensive arms and technology to build diesel submarines, and Taiwan’s full participation in the WHO, the International Civil Aviation Organization and other international institutions.

The new U.S. President will be in office next January and is likely to put forth a new American foreign policy. It is an opportune moment for to deliberate and plan a new policy toward Taiwan
so as to promote the normalization of the U.S.-Taiwan relations.

1. Review of the U.S.-Taiwan Relations

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter severed diplomatic ties with the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan under the Nationalist Chinese (KMT) regime and, instead, recognized the Communist regime, the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Over the objection of President Carter, the Congress drafted and passed the Taiwan Relations Act — a unique American law, which governs relations with another country(Taiwan) and provides a security umbrella over Taiwan, due to its geopolitical importance.

Fifteen years afterwards, in 1994, President Bill Clinton, who came into office the previous year, ordered a review of the U.S.-Taiwan relations.

The KMT regime seemed not prepared for the U.S. move, and did not make substantial input to the Taiwan Policy Review. In the wake of the Review, the name of Taiwan’s unofficial diplomatic mission in the U.S. was permitted to change from the “Coordination Council of North American Affairs” to “Taipei Economic Cultural Representative Office” (TECRO), but Taiwan got a very bad deal, instead.

The Clinton administration announced that henceforth the U.S. would not support Taiwan’s membership in the international organizations that require statehood. Such a policy decision clearly contradicts, hence violates the TRA.

President Clinton did further and greater damage to Taiwan with his so-called “three no’s.” During his tour of Shanghai, China in June 1998, he asserted that the U.S. will not support Taiwan’s membership in any state-based international organizations, will not support Taiwan’s independence, and will not pursue a “two Chinas, or one China one Taiwan policy.” To accept and support Beijing’s party line on Taiwan, Clinton completed ignored and directly violated America’s law of the land.

It is important to point out that, the TRA’s legislative history, committee reports, conference reports, as well as Senate and House floor statements regarding the TRA in the Congressional Record, make very plain that the lawmakers intended affirmative U.S. support for Taiwan’s continuing membership in the World Bank and the IMF and had no desire to exclude Taiwan from seeking future membership in other international organizations. Hence the TRA stipulates that “Nothing in this ACT may be construed as a basis for supporting the exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan of Taiwan from continuing membership in any international financial institutions or any other international organization” [Sect.4. (d).

Moreover, the TRA says that for all purposes of American law, Taiwan is a state and its government is the government of a friendly state. [Sect.4 (a)(b)(c)].

It is time for the U.S. to undertake another Taiwan Policy Review. The U.S. must recognize the TRA has encouraged and fostered Taiwan’s democratization and the changed circumstances democracy has brought to Taiwan.

The democratic polity that exists in Taiwan today is irreversible, and Taiwanese people’s quest for self-determination and dignified and meaningful international participation should be seen in this light.

The U.S. policy toward Taiwan is outdated, and must be updated.

2. U.S.-Taiwan Security cooperation

The TRA specifically mandates the U.S. “to provide Taiwan with arms of defensive character” [Sect. 2(b)(5)], and “will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary…” [Sect.3. (a)].

In direct violation of the TRA, the Reagan administration signed a communique with China on Aug. 17, 1982 that aimed to freeze the weaponry Taiwan may purchase both in quality and quantity, and gradually reduce weapons sales to Taiwan. Amid the huge uproar on the shocking concessions to China, President Reagan fired Secretary of State Alexander Haig who played a central role on the Communique, and provided the “six assurances” to Taiwan, seeking to downplay the inconsistency between the Communique and the TRA. Nonetheless, damages had been done.

Succeeding U.S. administrations continue to place restrictions on the arms sales to Taiwan and curtail Taiwan’s defense capabilities, even as the PRC pursues rapid military expansion and aggressive intimidation against Taiwan.

In order to avoid irritating Beijing, the U.S. has rejected Taipei’s repeated requests for submarines and advanced fighters, even the balance of military forces in the Taiwan Strait has tilted so much toward China as the Pentagon reports have warned in the past decade.

Inasmuch as the Congress exercises the power of oversight over the execution of American foreign policy, and the TRA specifically requires the executive branch to render an annual report to the Congress on the U.S.-Taiwan relations, it is incumbent that the members of the Congress and their aides closely monitor and supervise the full and faithful implementation of the TRA and “six assurances.”

3. The normalization of the U.S.-Taiwan Relations

President Carter’s de-recognition of the KMT authoritarian regime in 1979 was, with the benefits of hindsight, a blessing in disguise for the people of Taiwan.

To put it succinctly, the U.S. move eroded the legitimacy and political support of Chiang Kai-shek’s one party rule in Taiwan, forced the KMT to undergo liberalization and end martial law, these changes in turn expanded popular political participation and accelerated Taiwan’s democratization. In the past two decades, through democratic reforms, Taiwan has developed into a polity based on the consent of the governed, and popular sovereignty.

In the eyes of U.S. officials, Congressional leaders, and heads of civic organizations, Taiwan is a vibrant open society and a beacon of freedom and democracy to Asia Pacific. They should urge the new president to abandon an outdated policy of benign neglect toward Taiwan, and reset a new U.S. policy toward Taiwan, a democratic nation and a dependable U.S. security partner in the region.

Indeed, a free, democratic and secure Taiwan is in the best interest of the U.S., Japan and other U.S. allies in the region.

Parris Chang is Professor emeritus of Political Science at Pennsylvania State University and President of Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies. He was a DPP member of the Legislative yuan and deputy secretary-general of the National Security Council.

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