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"Twenty Years of the Taiwan Relations Act" Address by Darryl N. Johnson, Director, American Institute in Taiwan, to the Annual Convention of the Association of American Studies, Saturday, November 28, 1998 National Taiwan Normal University

BG9824E | Date: 1998-12-16

Mr. Justice Ma, thank you for that kind introduction.

I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to speak today to this distinguished audience on a topic that will likely attract a great deal of attention over the next few months - that is, the 20th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act. When I accepted the invitation to speak, I had not realized what a formidable audience the American Studies Association would be. Some of the association's members, such as Joanne Chang (Chang Jaw-ling) of the Academia Sinica and Edward Chen (Chen I-hsin) of Tamkang University, have written extensively about recent U.S.-Taiwan relations. They and other scholars have invested enormous time and energy in academic analysis of the Taiwan Relations Act and its implementation.

My task today is to offer you a different perspective, that of a foreign affairs practitioner who has devoted much of the past 30 years to work and study of issues involving Greater China. In fact, I first arrived in Taiwan almost 30 years ago, on January 1, 1969 - more than ten years before the Taiwan Relations Act was written. I have worked on China-related issues in Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei, and Washington. I also speak as one whose professional life over the past two and one-half years as Director of the AIT-Taipei office has been directly shaped and defined by the provisions of the Taiwan Relations Act.

A Law is Born

This piece of legislation, the TRA, is neither an abstract idea, nor a forgotten document tucked away in a filing cabinet. The Taiwan Relations Act is a living thing which provides the template for the work my staff and I do here in Taiwan, and for the work that our colleagues do back in Washington. From this distinctive point of view, I would contend that the Taiwan Relations Act at age 20 represents a unique and remarkably successful contribution to the peace and prosperity of the United States and of the entire East Asia/Pacific region.

When the United States announced its intention to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, there were many doubts and anxieties. The news coverage in the United States and Taiwan in late 1978 and early 1979 shows confusion and apprehension on both sides. There was a sense of abandonment here, which even led to some violent anti-American demonstrations in Taipei. Such a reaction may have been understandable, but it misjudged the underlying strength of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

As time passed and the relationship took on a new shape, it was something like the story behind the Chinese saying, "sai weng shi ma, an zhi fei fu." In the story, an old man loses his horse. His neighbors seek to console him, but they find he is not worried; "It may turn out to be a good thing," he tells them, and later events prove him correct when the horse returns with his long-lost son.

With the switch in recognition, it was clear that a new mechanism would have to be created to manage the extensive and important continuing interests between the people in Taiwan and in America. But it was not obvious what that mechanism would be or how it would work. Fortunately, both participants had a stake in the success of this effort, which greatly improved the odds of succeeding. From the U.S. side, it was obvious that we would require a legal framework, and that our objective was to preserve as much of the substance of our previous relationship with the people of Taiwan as possible. But that new frame of reference had to be consistent with an official diplomatic relationship with Beijing and an unofficial relationship with Taipei. This legal framework was codified as the Taiwan Relations Act. Through that Act, a situation which could have had negative or ambiguous consequences, became one with clearly defined prospects and bright opportunities.

What the TRA Does

The earliest draft of the Taiwan Relations Act was prepared by the State Department. Both Houses of Congress then made extensive revisions to that draft, while maintaining its main principles. The final legislation, which President Carter signed into law on April 10, 1979, has three major functions:

-- First, it sets forth U.S. policy objectives concerning Taiwan. These objectives include maintaining commercial and cultural relations, supplying defensive weapons to Taiwan, and ensuring the protection of human rights.

-- Second, the Act maintains the legal status of treaties and agreements between Taiwan and the United States in the absence of diplomatic relations.

-- Third, the Act authorizes the creation of the American Institute in Taiwan to represent the American side of the new relationship.

It is worth pointing out that the Taiwan Relations Act is not a list of things the United States cannot or will not do. Rather, the TRA is a positive document -- a document of possibilities. It specifies what the United States will do to maintain its ties with the people of Taiwan.

All change brings some measure of uncertainty, but the historical record shows that after the initial shock, the people of the United States and of Taiwan found a solid basis for confidence about our continued cooperation. In the year that followed the switch of recognition, two-way U.S.-Taiwan trade, American investment in Taiwan, and the number of Taiwan travelers to the United States all increased. This was the start of a long-term trend that is evident today in the ever stronger economic and cultural ties between Taiwan and the United States.

How It Works Now

We continue to support Taiwan in ways that are within the scope of the Taiwan Relations Act and the three U.S.-PRC communiqu廥. For example, the United States supports Taiwan's accession to the World Trade Organization, and we continue to work with Taiwan on issues that would pave the way for Taiwan's membership in the WTO. The United States also supported Taiwan's participation as a member of APEC and of the Asian Development Bank, reflecting its status as a major Asia-Pacific economy.

Just a few weeks ago, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson - a Cabinet member and close friend of President Clinton - was here in Taipei to demonstrate our interest in and concern for Taiwan. Senators and Members of Congress take seriously the oversight role assigned to them under the Taiwan Relations Act, and frequently visit Taiwan to keep themselves current on U.S.-Taiwan issues.

But even the most optimistic observers in 1979 could not have predicted that the relationship would work as well as it has. I believe the authors of the Taiwan Relations Act should get considerable credit for building such a sound and positive framework. But there are other important factors that also contribute to the close ties between the United States and Taiwan, even in the absence of formal relations:

-- For example, Taiwan's economic development not only makes it one of America's most important trade partners, but also gives Taiwan a strong, influential presence in East Asia and around the world, especially in these times of regional crisis.

-- Furthermore, the ongoing cultural and educational exchanges between Taiwan and the United States create powerful bonds of friendship and understanding that enhance our ability to work together.

-- And Taiwan's democratization deserves the high praise it has won from observers in the United States and elsewhere. This island's democratic system is a factor for peace in the region, and an example for others in East Asia who have not yet realized the advantages of government of, by, and for the people.

The Cross-Strait Factor

Last year, when PRC President Jiang Zemin visit the U.S., and again last summer, when President Clinton visited the PRC, the Taiwan Relations Act became an object of renewed attention. A number of anxious questions arose: Would there be a "Fourth Communiqu? with the PRC? Would President Clinton make some kind of agreement, secretly or openly, affecting the future of Taiwan?

President Clinton's every word during his PRC visit was subjected to painstaking scrutiny here, in Beijing, and in Washington. There must have been a great deal of eyestrain from so much effort to read between the lines. Some observers were alarmed when President Clinton mentioned the so-called "three no's" of U.S. policy when he was in Shanghai: that is, no U.S. support for Taiwan independence; no support for two Chinas or one China-one Taiwan; and no support for Taiwan's membership in international organizations that require statehood for membership. But the bells you heard then were a false alarm. The President was not announcing any new policy. He was simply reiterating American positions that reached as far back in time as 1971, and were fully consistent with our "one China" policy. And we should not forget that during the same trip, President Clinton explicitly reaffirmed the American commitment to the Taiwan Relations Act on PRC soil. He also explained the Administration's view that American arms sales to Taiwan are not an obstacle to cross-Strait relations. The U.S. considers these sales an essential part of helping to maintain stability in East Asia, which is crucial to peaceful cross-Strait interaction.

Let me reiterate what I and many others have said in recent months: the President's statements did not represent any change in U.S. policy. For the past two decades, our basic principles have remained constant. President Jimmy Carter said in December 1978 that Washington would maintain its interest in the peaceful resolution of the differences between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. AIT Chairman and Managing Director Richard Bush said in September 1998 that U.S. policy seeks an environment in which the people on Taiwan can pursue their aspirations for prosperity, democracy, and peace, and in which the two sides of the Strait can fashion - on a mutually acceptable basis - a durable peace and framework for productive cooperation. Then and now, our efforts support the creation of conditions under which differences between Taipei and Beijing can be resolved to the satisfaction of both sides. Not just Beijing, not just Taipei; both sides, mutually and peacefully. In that regard, it may also be worth repeating that the United States is not and does not seek to be a mediator between the two sides of the Strait. The United States has no prescribed solution, and has agreed to accept any outcome that comes about peacefully and to the satisfaction of both sides. But it is up to the sides themselves to find that outcome. That has been, is now, and will remain the American policy.

Beyond the Zero Sum

Some observers persist in viewing American contacts with the PRC and Taiwan as a zero-sum game. If U.S. relations with Beijing improve, those with Taipei must decline - and vice versa. In fact, the history of the past 20 years shows this rigid conceptual framework to be almost totally upside down. When U.S.-PRC relations are steady or improving, U.S.-Taiwan relations usually improve, and the cross-Strait atmosphere improves as well. In other words, this is a positive-sum equation, in which each contributes to the benefit of the other two.

The relationship between the United States and Taiwan, while unofficial, is thriving and productive. U.S.-Taiwan cooperation is a signal to the PRC of continuing American concern and engagement with Taiwan. It gives the PRC reason to think twice before making any hostile or coercive moves against Taiwan. And it requires all three parties to be thorough and thoughtful in taking actions or formulating policies which affect the other two.

The Taiwan Relations Act was drafted in an earlier era, when the Cold War largely defined US foreign policy. With the end of the Cold War, the international scene has become more complex, and in many ways more challenging. Yet the framework established in 1979 continues to serve remarkably well the interests of the U.S., of Taiwan - and of the PRC.

We will continue to abide by the commitments set forth in the Taiwan Relations Act, for it is the law of our land. It has become one of the core documents guiding the conduct of U.S. foreign relations - a unique document for a unique relationship. I am confident that it will continue to play an important role in helping the people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits to achieve a satisfying, peaceful future.