Free China Marks 45th Anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act as the Island Democracy Faces an Uncertain Future

As isolationist tendencies grow in Congress, Taipei’s relationship with Washington hangs in balance.

AP/Chiang Ying-ying, file
Republic of China military exercises aimed at repelling an attack from Red China at Hsinchu County. AP/Chiang Ying-ying, file

Should America defend Free China? Can it? That’s the million-dollar question on the minds of many at Washington who will mark on April 10 the 45th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act. Hailed as the foundation for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, the law is looking more pertinent than ever as an increasingly aggressive Communist China looks to impose on Taiwan its vision of “one country, two systems.” 

As isolationist tendencies grow in Congress, questions are arising over whether America should — or even could — come to the island’s defense in the event of a invasion from the Chinese mainland. That was the commitment set out by the act, signed into law by President Carter in 1979 as America moved to recognize the People’s Republic and abrogate its mutual defense treaty with Taiwan in favor of a policy of strategic ambiguity.

Some fear a major Chinese move could come as early as the inauguration in May of Taiwan’s new president, Lai Ching-te, who ran on a ticket opposed by Beijing. He said during his election campaign he plans to “maintain the status quo” for the island’s 23 million people, who have never been ruled by Beijing or been citizens of the People’s Republic. Some in Taiwan are concerned Mr. Lai could provoke a crisis in the strait by pushing the envelope on formal independence, a scenario the Taiwan Relations Act was designed to deter.

“With the stakes getting higher in the ever-changing Indo-Pacific,” the ambassador and director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York, James K. J. Lee, tells the Sun, “Taiwan looks forward to working closely with the US to make our existing ‘rock-solid’ relations stronger through the TRA framework.” 

The Taiwan Relations Act considers an attack on the region a threat to America and the Western Pacific. It has warded against a unilateral unification of China — so far. With the future of Taipei in peril, diverging forces in American politics either say that the act isn’t strong enough, or that its promises can’t possibly be met by an America stretched thin by various global conflicts.

Congress plays an outsized role in the implementation of the act, a law that can’t just be ignored by whoever is in the White House. When Mr. Carter advocated for a weaker agreement as he sought to normalize relations with China, Congress defied him, seeing America as having a special role to play in Taiwan. 

“The Taiwan Relations Act is really one of the principal successes of US foreign policy,” a fellow for Asia studies at Council on Foreign Relations, David Sacks, tells the Sun, “and I think that US-Taiwan relations are really one of the great successes of US foreign policy over the last number of decades.”

At the end of the day, though, it’s up to the executive branch to determine how to respond to, say, a Chinese blockade against Taiwan. “With the million-dollar-question of whether the United States would intervene on Taiwan’s behalf,” Mr. Sacks says, “that is really up to the discretion of the president.”

President Biden has made it clear on several occasions that he would defend Taiwan, while President Trump and his faction of America-first foreign policy pundits increasingly question the benefits of American intervention abroad. A growing contingency of “realist hawks” in foreign policy, like Senator Vance, caution that more aid to Ukraine will further deplete the American military’s capacity to defend Taiwan if needed.

Others wonder if the act, nearly a half century after its passage, is a sufficient baseline for American engagement with Taiwan. “The TRA is a great instrument to keep track of these obligations and whether we’re meeting them, but is that enough to deter an increasingly aggressive and capable China?” Mr. Sacks asks. He points to clamoring in Congress for a robust military training program, which would exceed the TRA’s requirement that America provide arms sales to help Taiwan defend itself. 

Senator Sullivan has floated a bill that would make automatic a host of sanctions on the People’s Republic if it were to use force against Taiwan. He joins three-quarters of Americans who support imposing economic and diplomatic sanctions in such an event, according to a survey by the Chicago Council conducted in September of 2023. 

Two-thirds of Americans say the nation’s security relationship with Taiwan does more to strengthen than weaken U.S. national security, the Chicago Council survey suggests. Though the majority of respondents oppose sending American troops to help the Taiwanese government defend itself from Communist China, majorities of both Democrats and Republicans support using the Navy to break a Chinese blockade around the island. 

“Beijing right now is not confident that it could take control of Taiwan at a reasonable cost, and we more than any other country in the world can influence that calculus and we should do so,” Mr. Sacks says. “As long as we can demonstrate to Beijing that the costs would far outweigh the benefits, then I think that we can maintain deterrence.” Even if deterrence fails and President Xi does invade, Mr. Sacks says, more defensive measures would put Washington in a better position to respond.

If Congress passed legislation that required the president to show more support for Taiwan, it would likely hit constitutional obstacles given the separation of powers in the U.S. government.

“It runs the risk of being more symbolic than substantive, which could exacerbate tensions across the strait without really helping Taiwan,” a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school, Jacques deLisle, who directs Penn’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China, tells the Sun. “Anytime you change something — whether it’s a presidential statement or more dramatically legislation — you give China an excuse to come in and say, now you’re trying to change the status quo.”

Regardless of whether Washington comes to the rescue, a war over Taiwan, America’s 8th largest trading partner, would be incredibly costly. Bloomberg Economics estimates the price tag at around $10 trillion, equal to about 10 percent of global GDP — making the economic blows of the war in Ukraine, Covid pandemic, and Global Financial Crisis look like blips in the radar. 

“Every country around the world will be affected by a conflict in the Taiwan Strait,” says Mr. Sacks. “It doesn’t matter if that country intervenes militarily or not, because of globalization and supply chains.”

Mr. deLisle has a warning for the isolationists in Congress. If America walks away from Ukraine’s war with Russia, it will sow doubt about its commitment to partners in the Indo-Pacific, like Korea and Japan, and make it more difficult to rally international support for Taiwan, he says. To counteract the global south’s acquiescence to China’s position on Taiwan, Washington should, he urges, leverage the collective power of the global North and make the Taiwan Strait an issue of common concern. 

“U.S. power in the world is relatively less than it used to be, especially vis-á-vis China,” Mr. deLisle says. “Yet it can be magnified by cooperating with like-minded states and allies.” As for the long-term relationship between Teipei and Washington, as Mr. Lee puts it to the Sun, “there is no other friendship quite like it.” 

Neither is there any other piece of legislation like the Taiwan Relations Act that singularly defines America’s relationship to a nation. “And as we look forward to the next chapter in our success story,” Mr. Lee says, “I see a future where the partnership remains rock-solid for decades to come, and a future where we continue working together to maintain peace and advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The New York Sun

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