At Large

The Country the World Forgot

Thirty years later, the Taiwan Relations Act is making much more sense than it originally did.

By 3.20.09

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Only four years after World War II had ended and two years after modern India, Pakistan and Israel were created, the Republic of China (ROC), originally established in 1911, was reborn on Taiwan in 1949. Since then it has grown from a refugee haven for people fleeing Communist China to a thriving nation of over 23 million citizens -- and today it is rarely remarked upon in the western media.

On April 10 this once Dutch, then Chinese, then Japanese island colony will celebrate thirty years of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) -- the legal action by the United States Congress that protected the existence of this still dynamic, productive nation and at the same time effectively condemned it to a state of international political limbo.

From the standpoint of the United States, the driving force behind the TRA was Washington's desire to prevent the communist People's Republic of China (PRC) from having an internationally accepted political justification to attack the island of Taiwan and take it over.

President Jimmy Carter's removal of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan (ROC) and the shift of that recognition to the mainland's PRC in December 1978 required that a device be established that allowed for a continuation of the American commitment to anti-communist Chinese interests in East Asia. Ironically the Taiwan Relations Act became the building block on which future U.S. trade and political relations with the Beijing communist government also would gain a solid footing.

The ROC on Taiwan had been an invaluable support point for U.S. military forces first during the Korean War and then during the Vietnam War. It is foolish to ignore the mutually valuable relationship that grew between Taiwan and the United States in that period. Those who referred to Taiwan as America's unsinkable aircraft carrier in East Asia were not too far off the mark.

While Jimmy Carter actually took the final steps initiated by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, it was the strong growth of democracy and a commitment to protect their new democracy by the people of Taiwan that made it possible for the American policy embodied in the TRA to work.

It is particularly interesting that the Kuomintang Party (KMT) that had been the original dominant force has returned to power after eight years of self-inflicted loss of popularity. The KMT's principal rival, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), beat the drum of independence in an effort to hold on to popular support. In the end all it accomplished was to draw the ire of Beijing and threats of military action.

More damaging for the DPP, however, were charges of corruption hurled successfully at its leader, Chen Shui-bien. Finally in March 2008 the KMT came roaring back on a reform platform that included, among other things, a promise of better and more cooperative relations with the PRC. This was a political sea change for the original party of China's nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, the hated enemy of Communist China.

The PRC has never accepted the TRA and periodically rails against American sales to Taiwan's government, the ROC, of defensive weapons (allowed by the Act) to Taiwan. In spite of these objections Beijing has refrained from military action. While agreeing with the PRC on the "one China" concept, Washington preserves the "strategic ambiguity" of retaining the right to intervene in order "to resist any resort to force or other form of coercion that would jeopardize the security or the social or the economic system of the people of Taiwan." (Quoted from the Taiwan Relations Act.)

The reality is that Taiwan is a thriving independent entity, whether or not it is accepted as a sovereign nation by the United Nations. According to U.S. State Department statistics, the United States is Taiwan's third largest trading partner after China and Japan. Taiwan exports 60.2% of its products to the same three countries and imports 46.6% from them. The rest is divided worldwide. Total trade for 2008 is approximated at between $450-$500 billion.

Importantly there is in excess of $100 billion of Taiwanese investment in the PRC both directly and indirectly. This considerable investment in Chinese industry by business interests in Taiwan has resulted in a substantial economic relationship between the democratically run Taiwan and the communist nation of the People's Republic of China.

The Taiwan Relations Act has provided a firm base of support for all concerned: The United States has retained a valuable ally in a key geo-strategic part of the world. Taiwan may lack broad diplomatic recognition but nonetheless plays an important economic -- and thus political -- role internationally. And the PRC has been able to maintain its claim of sovereignty over this large island that it never conquered, while at the same time having the advantage of trade and investment.

A win-win all based on a thirty-year-old congressional act that hardly anyone remembers relative to a country that everyone conveniently forgets!

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.