An important anniversary for US diplomacy  

U.S. foreign policy is largely analyzed and judged by the choices that leaders make in moments of crisis. However, the 35th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) provides a moment to reflect on an underappreciated moment in U.S. diplomacy that transformed a major flashpoint into a conduit for trade, investment, exchange and even peace.

Miscalculation across the Taiwan Strait posed the same threat to global security in 1978 as acts of aggression in the Korean Peninsula or the Strait of Hormuz do today. In mid-December of that year, President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would shift recognition from Taipei to the government in Beijing as the legal government of China, concluding a process that was set in motion with President Richard Nixon’s first visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972. This move ended more than 20 years of direct relations between Washington and Taipei, provoking concern in Taiwan that an emboldened People’s Republic of China would upset regional stability.

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Thankfully, the shift in U.S. recognition to Beijing did not mean an end to the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Members of Congress seeking to preserve American interests in East Asia ensured that the legislative language constituting the TRA allowed the U.S. to maintain relations and meaningful exchanges with the Republic of China (Taiwan) in parallel with the normalization of contact with Beijing.

Swift congressional action demonstrated strong bipartisan support for preserving comprehensive U.S. political and security commitments. Taiwan today is a flourishing democracy, a major economic engine and a vital U.S. ally, but the prosperity and stability that we currently enjoy required decades of vigilance, perseverance and enlightened leadership in both Washington and Taipei.

The U.S.-Taiwan alliance was built on providing Taiwan the military and economic assistance needed to counter the threat of Communist expansion. As the Cold War concluded, and Beijing’s ideology softened in subsequent decades, the TRA continued to endure.  Ongoing U.S. military sales ensured Taiwan’s self-defense capability, and numerous expressions of the U.S.’s lasting commitment to Taiwan’s security throughout the years provided Taiwan the confidence needed to engage mainland China from a position of strength. President Ronald Reagan once said, “Peace is made by the fact of strength. ... Peace is lost when such strength disappears.”  The TRA ensures that the strength necessary to pursue peace in East Asia will not disappear.

Earlier this year in Nanjing, officials from Taiwan and China met face to face, using each other’s official title for the first time in more than 65 years. This important milestone saw Republic of China Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi meet with Mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun; it resulted in agreements to create a formal process for Taipei and Beijing to communicate regarding issues in cross-strait relations. No one could have imagined such an exchange in 1996, when President Clinton sent the USS Nimitz and the USS Independence to the vicinity of Taiwan in response to a missile test by the People’s Liberation Army. Such a meeting among former adversaries is a testament to the power of diplomacy and the foresight of the TRA. 

Under the leadership of President Ma Ying-Jeou, who pursued deepening ties with the U.S. as his top foreign policy priority, the U.S.-Taiwan relationship has reached its highest level in decades. The U.S. has provided Taiwan with more military equipment in the past five years than in any period since 1979. Our two nations have resumed Trade and Investment Framework Agreement talks, expanded Taiwan’s ability to engage international organizations via Taiwan’s invitation to the International Civil Aviation Organization Assembly, and established Visa Waiver Program status for Taiwan, providing new sources of revenue for U.S. businesses.

But now is no time to rest on our laurels. The enemy of any diplomatic partnership is complacency. The TRA — like the wider U.S.-Taiwan relationship it defines — demands constant attention, cultivation and refinement.  Taiwan and the U.S. have more challenges to face to strengthen our political ties through high-level engagement, through response to global challenges, through international cooperation, new trade agreements and through enhancement of our security partnership by closer military-to-military engagement. As the U.S. takes steps to “rebalance” toward Asia, Taiwan looks forward to maintaining our robust defense cooperation and dynamic commercial relations with the U.S. We continue to share a common strategic perspective, predicated on the U.S.’s continued presence and engagement in Asia. With tensions in the South and East China seas continuing to simmer, U.S. diplomacy remains indispensable.

Stability will be further bolstered through regional economic integration. For this reason, I am confident that the U.S. will support Taiwan’s goal to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as early as possible. Taiwan is one of the region’s most dynamic economies, and its entry into the TPP will substantially expand its access to the markets encompassed by the agreement.

Peace through strength is the watchword across the Taiwan Strait today, thanks to America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security 35 years ago. The crises that never occur are the true testament to American leadership. Reaffirming the strength of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship at the upcoming 35th anniversary of the TRA also provides the U.S. an opportunity to celebrate the spirit of bipartisan cooperation and commitment to democracy. With sufficient political will, the genius of the TRA can be replicated to tackle any global challenge.  

Lee is the deputy representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, D.C.