Written by Gerrit van der Wees.
The TRA and a democratic Taiwan
April 10th 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) by US President Jimmy Carter. The TRA legislation was passed by Congress in order to establish the legal foundations for relations between the United States and Taiwan. This followed the December 1978 break of diplomatic relations with the Kuomintang (KMT) authorities in Taipei, and establishment of relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government in Beijing.
The anniversary will prompt discussion on how well the TRA has served US-Taiwan relations, and whether it remains an adequate basis for ties with the island, now that it has become a vibrant democracy that wants to play a fuller role on the world scene.
The fundamental difference between 1979 – when the TRA was passed – and 2019 is indeed that back in 1979 Taiwan was ruled by a repressive KMT regime that still claimed sovereignty over China, while during the past 25-plus years Taiwan has morphed into a lively democracy, with a population that is eager to be accepted by the international community as a full and equal member, and is willing to fulfil its responsibilities as a world citizen.
Is the TRA still an adequate legal basis?
Thus, while the TRA has played a useful and positive role during the past 40 years, the question is whether it still is an adequate legal basis for US relations with the vibrant democracy that is Taiwan today. On this issue, there are basically three schools of thought:
First, the “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” school. These observers basically feel that the TRA has served the US and Taiwan well, and that the current construct should be continued more or less as is. Any tinkering with the concept would lead to unforeseen consequences, particularly in the sensitive relations with the PRC. Proponents of this approach argue in favour of the current “status quo”.
Second, the “stay-within-the-current-One-China-policy-but-push-the-envelope” school. Proponents of this approach feel that, while the TRA has served the relationship reasonably well, there is still much room for improvement. These observers argue that the US can and should do much more to enhance relations with Taiwan, while staying within the current “One China policy” framework. They argue that the fact that Taiwan is a vibrant democracy should be the basis for developing a “new status quo”, in which there is flexibility for more normal relations with Taiwan, short of formal diplomatic ties.
Third, the “normalization of relations” school. Proponents of this approach argue that while the TRA has fulfilled its function as a stabilizing factor and as the basis for US policy towards Taiwan on human rights, arms sales, international space etc., it is not adequate as a legal basis for future relations as it takes insufficient account of the fundamental fact that Taiwan is now a blooming democracy, and not anymore ruled by a repressive authoritarian regime claiming to represent China.
Adherents of this school argue that in spite of its positive contributions, the TRA is perpetuating Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation and lack of international status. They emphasize that Taiwan’s transition to democracy represents a new fact on the ground that should prompt the international community to move away from the antiquated “One China policy” concept – which was a response to the fact that two competing regimes claimed sovereignty over China – and move towards acceptance of Taiwan as a full member in the international family of nations.
China’s historic claims tenuous at best
The main obstacle is of course the insistence by the PRC government in Beijing that it has sovereignty over the island and its 23 million inhabitants. In fact, at no point in its existence since 1949 has the PRC exercised any control over Taiwan or had any sovereignty over the island. However, it sees itself as the successor of the KMT regime of Chiang Kai-shek, and the ancient Chinese Ming and Ch’ing dynasties.
But, even in ancient times, there was little evidence of any control by the successive emperors over Taiwan: before the Dutch colonial period in Taiwan (1624–1662) there were only the aboriginal inhabitants. The Dutch brought in Hokkien laborers from the coastal provinces to serve as agricultural workers, while the Ming Dynasty pirate-general Zheng Cheng-kung (a.k.a. Koxinga) brought thousands of followers with him. However, the main influx during those times were people who wanted to escape wars and famine in China: they were pioneers in search of a new life and did not come to conquer on behalf of the emperor.
During the Ch’ing/Manchu dynasty, Taiwan was considered a political and economic backwater which received little attention from the emperors in Beijing. It was not until the late 1800s that the Manchu started to pay attention, because Japan, France and other Western countries started to be interested in a presence in the region and were eying Taiwan. Thus, Taiwan was made a formal province under the Manchu in 1887, but this lasted only eight years, as in 1895 Taiwan was ceded to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki.
Taiwan thus became a Japanese colony, during which it developed into a prosperous place with a well-educated population and modern infrastructure. This changed abruptly after World War II when the allies allowed Chiang Kai-shek to occupy the island. This repressive rule under martial law continued until 1987, when the island and its people started its momentous transition to democracy. The conclusion is thus that the PRC’s historical claim to sovereignty over Taiwan is tenuous at best.
Looking at Taiwan in a new light
The problem is thus that Beijing still sees the relations with Taiwan through the dark glasses of the Chinese Civil War, which was fought in China between Nationalists and Communists. The leaders in Beijing need to start looking at Taiwan in new light. They need to move away from the old animosities, contradictions and perceptions dating from the Chinese Civil War, and move towards the concept of peaceful coexistence as friendly neighbours.
Perpetuation of the current zero-sum strategy of military, economic and political pressure is simply not conducive to peaceful cross-Strait relations and will perpetuate tensions for a long time to come. Peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait can only be achieved if China accepts Taiwan as a friendly neighbour.
It would thus help if other international democracies, in particularly the United States, Western Europe, India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand would jointly help convince China to alter its approach to Taiwan, while at the same time time reimagining their own Taiwan relations.
Taking into account the fact that the Taiwan of 2019 is not the same as the ROC of 1979, we need to look at Taiwan in its own light and its own right. We need to bring Taiwan in from the cold of political isolation and start working towards a normalization of bilateral relations. And, under the principle of universality, we need to support Taiwan as a full and equal member in the international family of nations.
Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. Between 1980 and 2016 he served as editor of Taiwan Communiqué. Currently he teaches History of Taiwan at George Mason University.