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The Taiwan Relations Act at Twenty Address by Darryl N. Johnson, Director, American Institute in Taiwan, to the Conference on U.S.-Taiwan Relations: Twenty Years after the Taiwan Relations Act, April 9, 1999 Institute of European and American Studies

BG9905E | Date: 1999-04-09

Honored guests, distinguished scholars, ladies and gentlemen:

It is my great honor today to represent the American Institute in Taiwan in greeting you at the opening of this important conference. Since the Taiwan Relations Act defines the work that my AIT colleagues and I do every day, it is one of our favorite topics. I look forward to hearing the ideas you put forth over the next two days.

Although the Taiwan Relations Act has existed for only twenty years, there is already a substantial body of scholarship built around the Act. This conference brings together a stellar group of scholars and experts whose study of U.S.-Taiwan relations surely must total a few hundred years. If we combined all of your years of study and experience, it would reach back beyond the Ch'ing Dynasty, or forward beyond the 21st Century.

In addition to your own extensive work, several U.S. official and non-official people, including Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth and AIT Managing Director Richard Bush, have spoken on the record recently about the anniversary of the TRA and its current significance. At the risk of appearing to "chao leng fan," I would like to cover some of the same ground, while trying also to look into the coming several years. Specifically, I would like to address the TRA in terms of its original goals, its current relevance and its future prospects.

What Were the Goals? The objective of this historic piece of legislation can be stated very simply: to preserve the long-standing friendship and common interests between the United States and Taiwan in the absence of diplomatic relations. This objective was elaborated in the form of two fundamental goals in Section 2(a) of the Act:

"... to help maintain peace, security and stability in the Western Pacific; and to promote the foreign policy of the United States by authorizing the continuation of commercial, cultural and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan."

It may also be worth noting in this regard what the Act does not say: it does not say, for example, that this law constitutes a mutual defense treaty, or that it maintains formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Taiwan.

The actual formulation of the words was a collaborative effort between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. Government, including the Carter White House, the Department of State and the Department of Defense on the one hand, with both Houses of the U.S. Congress and both parties on the other.

How Has It Worked? Regardless of the differences between the original framers of this legislation, or between the scholars and other observers who have commented on it over the intervening years, virtually everyone agrees that the original goals have been met and exceeded, far beyond the hopes and expectations of those who started this ball rolling. The fact that a group like this is meeting in this place at this time would itself have been surprising to some who doubted the resilience and durability of the people of Taiwan, and the constancy of U.S. policy. One measure of the Act's success is that lots of people now want to claim credit for its drafting -- up to and including President Carter. Every U.S. administration since his has reiterated its commitment to uphold the terms of the TRA, and both houses of the Congress have done so as well, by overwhelming majorities -- most recently through House Concurrent Resolution 56, passed by a nearly unanimous vote. Let me reiterate an obvious point: support for the TRA and for the relationship it defines is not a partisan political issue in the United States -- everyone agrees.

To Maintain Peace. The U.S. has faithfully implemented the security and arms sales provisions of the TRA. The TRA notes our "expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means." The depth and firmness of our resolve on this point was demonstrated in March 1996 when President Clinton ordered two U.S. carrier battle groups to the waters near Taiwan. It is worth recalling that peace and stability have generally prevailed in this region for these 20 years, in striking contrast to the incredible violence and devastation of three major wars during the preceding 40 years.

The Act also calls for the U.S. "to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character." This provision has perhaps been the most frequently discussed, so I will not go over it in detail. Suffice it to say that the U.S. has always taken this requirement seriously, and maintains a close consultative relationship with the Taiwan authorities on all matters of defensive military goods and services. It is also worth noting that the recent study of the cross-Strait military balance, some portions of which have been quoted out of context, says in its introductory section that, except in a few areas, the dynamic equilibrium between the forces of the PRC and Taiwan in the Taiwan Strait area has not changed dramatically over the past 20 years. That is very significant, and is testimony to the U.S. commitment to meet this obligation, and thus to help create the conditions under which the cross-Strait relationship can be managed peacefully. It is also worth noting, as Assistant Secretary Roth said recently, that "Taiwan's security over the long term depends more on the two sides coming to terms with each other than on the particular military balance.

"To Maintain Commercial, Cultural and Other Ties. In addition to the important security components of the Act, it also calls for continued "commercial, cultural and other" relations between the people of the U.S. and of Taiwan. Commercial relations have not only continued, they have expanded beyond imagination. In 1998 U.S. trade with Taiwan reached USD 50 billion, marked increasingly by high-tech and high-value goods and services. With major investments flowing both ways, with travel and shipping continuing to expand, the U.S. and Taiwan have created a model economic relationship. In keeping with the strength of these ties, the two sides concluded their bilateral negotiations in February 1998 on Taiwan's WTO accession package. It remains the policy of the United States to support Taiwan's accession to the WTO on the merits.

In the area of cultural and education ties, I need not even mention the availability of American books, music and films -- they are everywhere here. As for education, one of my favorite statistics is that 60% of the current cabinet (plus the President and Vice President) have advanced degrees from U.S. universities. Education is, in my view, our most important "export," because its value continues and multiplies. Many of the 30,000 students from Taiwan currently in the United States are the children of those who went a generation ago.

The meaning of the phrase "other relations" is not spelled out in the TRA, although there was a reference to our concern about human rights. This concern is now, thankfully, gone. The birth and growth of democracy in Taiwan is one of the great accomplishments in this region over the past 20 years. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, and it certainly owes its strength to the commitment of the leaders and people of Taiwan. But democracy and human rights are important to the people of the United States of all political persuasions, and the drafters of the TRA would be proud to be associated with these results.

Where Are We Headed? The easiest form of prognosis is to project today's circumstances into the indefinite future. Indeed, public opinion polls in Taiwan consistently show large majorities favoring the continuation of "the status quo." But in fact the so-called status quo is not static. As we have seen in this brief review of the past 20 years, Taiwan society and the U.S.-Taiwan relationship have been very dynamic.

And nowhere has this dynamism been more evident than in the cross-Strait relationship. While the normalization of U.S.-PRC diplomatic relations 20 years ago was not welcomed here, one of its objectives was to encourage a more responsible PRC role in the world -- including in this region. The range of issues on which the U.S. interacts with Beijing has broadened. But even more significantly, the interaction between Taiwan and the PRC has gone from the negative column to the positive, with Taiwan investment in the Mainland now in the neighborhood of USD30 billion, two-way trade at about USD23 billion last year, and 1.7 million visits from Taiwan to the Mainland last year.

It is also true that this extensive economic relationship has not, thus far, led to many concrete achievements on the political front, although I would not minimize the importance of SEF Chairman C.F. Koo's visit to Shanghai and Beijing last October -- the highest level of contact between the two sides since 1949. Similarly, the U.S. welcomes the prospect of the visit to Taiwan later this year by Mr. Koo's PRC counterpart, ARATS Chairman Wang Daohan. It is our hope that these visits will lead to a more substantive dialogue in which tensions can be reduced, misperceptions clarified and common ground explored. It is also our hope, to cite Mr. Roth again, that the creativity of the people on both sides could lead to some interim agreements, perhaps some confidence building measures, on some of the issues that divide the two sides.

Lest you conclude that this represents some new initiative by the U.S., let me assure you that it does not; we have no intention of playing a role in mediating between Beijing and Taipei; issues between the two must be resolved by the two sides themselves, and must be acceptable to both sides. Our abiding interest is that the differences be resolved peacefully. That is one of the basic principles of the Taiwan Relations Act, and it will remain as constant for the next twenty years as it has for the past twenty.