Sunday, April 12, 2009

Taiwan Relations Act at 30

Yes, it has been 30 years since Carter switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing and Congress responding by putting together the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) (Text of the Act). A few articles out there on it today. Reuters observed that pro-Taiwan groups in the US are worried that improving relations between the US and China mean Taiwan will soon be sold out:
Taiwan lobby groups, suspicious of China and fearful of fast improving Sino-U.S. relations, urged U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday to stop Beijing's "growing military threat" against the island it claims as its own.

The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, recognising Beijing's "one China" policy, but is obliged by the 30-year-old Taiwan Relations Act to help defend the island and is its biggest arms supplier.

Advocacy groups, including the World Federation of Taiwan Organisations and a U.S.-based group representing 700,000 people, sent Obama and the U.S. Congress letters asking for stronger ties with Taipei, one of the signatories said in a statement.
Second paragraph there contains two problematic statements. First, the US is not obligated to sell weapons to Taiwan. Sec 3302 is pretty clear on who makes the determination: the President and Congress. Taiwan is not involved anywhere in the process, and there is nothing to stop the US from washing its hands of Taiwan by declaring the island has "sufficient" arms. Whether Taiwan gets weapons is the result of a political calculus -- and Congress has tended to place foreign policy decisions in the hands of the Executive. Chris Nelson, a former Dem staffer who was in on its drafting, had this to say in 2007:
In fact, the US is not obligated to defend Taiwan by law, and in the post-9/11 world, senior Republican offcials and military brass have cast considerable doubt on the US moral obligation, if President Bush were to conclude that hostilities were the result of actions by Taiwan.

In fact, although the TRA includes language designed to discourage the use of force by the PRC against Taiwan, the TRA only obligates the US to consider arms sales under certain circumstances, period.

Take our word for it, as a junior staff-participant, even this language was extracted very reluctantly from the State Department at the cost of considerable blood on both sides.

The strongest language Congressional friends of Taiwan were able to add talks about a "grave threat" to US interests in the event of an upset in the peaceful status quo. That's it...not exactly a mutual defense treaty.

So you add it all up, and not even at the beginning did the TRA mandate that the US defend Taiwan under any circumstance, nor that arms must be sold, simply because of requests by Taiwan.

Every aspect of this is subject to US political will, judgement and discretion...the everlasting frustration of both China and Taiwan, duly noted.
The second problem is....
"The United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, recognising Beijing's "one China" policy,"
....but in fact we never recognized it. We merely acknowledged that it exists, and to this day Washington and Beijing have different One China policies. Hopefully we can get a correction on that wording.

The Taipei Times offered a scary piece from trusty correspondent William Lowther, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the TRA with bad news:
Mark Kao (高龍榮), an official with the Formosan Association for Human Rights, told one gathering that Taiwanese students in the US are now often frightened to give their names if they say anything critical of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration.

“We are deeply concerned about this situation,” Kao said. “There has been an erosion of human rights in Taiwan and it is getting worse since Ma took over last year.”

“I am often on university campuses and I find that students from Taiwan will not reveal their true identity when they speak critically of the Ma administration because they fear they will be harassed or made to suffer in some way when they go home,” he said.

Kao said that many Taiwanese students he had met in the US over the last few weeks believed that the government at home would take action against them if they were critical or complained about Ma’s pro-China policies. “It is a common concern,” he said.
Unlike with weapons, the TRA contains a strong statement supporting human rights in Taiwan.

There's a short Q&A on the TRA with Julian Chang of Harvard, which offers little. Jon Adams, though, over at Global Post had yet another good piece, this time a background on the TRA past and present:
Since it took power a year ago, a new KMT administration has sidled up to Beijing to forge closer economic links. The next round of talks, due next month or June, will address banking ties and crime-fighting.

Some optimists are even talking peace deal.

"Because of the new situation, Taiwan-China relations are quite different from 30 years ago," said Lin Cheng-yi, from Taiwan's Academia Sinica. "Some might argue that the current government is pursuing a policy of 'creeping unification.'"

All of which leads to the question: Is it time to rewrite — even scrap — the Taiwan Relations Act, to fit new realities?

A growing number of experts think so. One is Robert Sutter, formerly with the CIA and State Department, and one of America's top Asia hands. In a recent paper, Sutter argues that U.S. policy is obsolete, as China ups its diplomatic, economic and military edge over Taiwan.

"Recent developments suggest that the longstanding notion of U.S.-supported balance in the Taiwan Strait is no longer viable in the face of ever-increasing Chinese influence over Taiwan," he wrote.

Still, there are several reasons why the Taiwan Relations Act probably won't be eighty-sixed anytime soon.

For one, Taiwan would strongly object. As friendly as Taipei may be getting with China, it still craves global recognition. The Taiwan Relations Act is the next best thing to formal recognition from America — so any tinkering would be viewed with alarm.

"Does the TRA in practice imply statehood for Taiwan?" asked Andrew Hsia, Taiwan's vice foreign minister, at the forum. "We believe so."

Other experts note that although the Taiwan Relations Act may be outdated, Taiwan is so far down Obama's priority list that it's unlikely to be changed.

Wang, the AIT official, took an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach at the forum. "[U.S.] policy has worked for the past 30 years," Wang said. "So there's no urgency in Washington or elsewhere in wanting to change this." so many of us at 30, the TRA faces an uncertain future.

Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


reeb said...

Just a quirky tidbit to add:

On March 22, you made a interesting post called: Reconstructing post-1949 Nationalist History in TaiwanOne of the footnotes (#10), caught my eye about links between the Chiang family and the building of the Grand Hotel. I knew some of the history, but I thought I would dig a little deeper on this topic. It lead me to a book by Laura Tyson Li called: Madame Chiang Kai-shek: China's Eternal First Lady ( New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006, pp.385-387) (review) As it turns out, almost the full book in online here.

At first, I though, man, this is just a hack schmooze job, but after some reading it got to be kind of interesting in a Sterling Seagrave way. (still a hack/schmooze job though).

On page 384 it describes an incident where MCKS had the author of CKS's lover's memoirs (former wife Jennie Chen) beaten unconscious.

Later on page 395, there is an incident involving the Green Mountain guest house. (bad mojo). Also page 400 it describes a traffic accident on the way to the guesthouse that knocked out CKS dentures and tweaked MCKS arm severely. (Sep67).

On 395, Nixon visited CKS at the Shihmen Reservoir in April 1967 (and money exchange later page 398?)

Page 408 explains that Nixon sent Reagan to Taipei to explain to the Chiangs the reasons behind the decision to recognize the PRC.

Most interestingly, It mentions that it was Soong Mayling's decision not to accept (keep) the R.O.C. UN seat. (but damn, can't find that page...)

Readin said...

Regarding the Reuters article and the criticisms of it: I thought they were overdone. The blog said "Second paragraph there contains two problematic statements. First, the US is not obligated to sell weapons to Taiwan." However, the Reuters article did say the US is obligated to sell the weapons. It said the US "is obliged by the 30-year-old Taiwan Relations Act to help defend the island and is its biggest arms supplier."

The blog later says about the Beijing's one-China policy, "but in fact we never recognized it. We merely acknowledged that it exists, and to this day Washington and Beijing have different One China policies." The Reuters article didn't say we "accepted", "agreed to", or "adopted". We merely "recognized" the policy. It probably would have been better if the article had used the exact wording of the original document and said "acknowledge", but "recognize" doesn't seem inaccurate to me.