Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Taiwan commemorates the 30th Anniversary of TRA with new cross-strait stability

On March 24th, the US House of Representatives once again pledged its “unwavering commitment” to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and called it the “the cornerstone of US relationship with Taiwan.” In recognition of the 30th anniversary of the TRA, Congress strongly backed the resolution with a unanimous vote. The next day, a group of 30 senators wrote to President Barack Obama asking him to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the TRA.

In 1979, Taiwan was left diplomatically adrift after President Carter announced his intention to switch diplomatic relations from the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In order to continue relations with the island and to protect Taiwan from mainland Chinese aggression, the US Congress and the Senate overwhelmingly passed the TRA on April 10th of that year. Since then, the TRA has successfully protected Taiwan and preserved peace in the Taiwan Strait. Moreover, the island, as one of the strongest allies of the US in Asia, has become a robust and free economy with an American-styled democracy.

When President Carter recognized the PRC in Taiwan’s stead, he also nullified the Mutual Defense Treaty protecting Taiwan from the mainland. Congress quickly passed the TRA to provide a framework for substantive US-ROC relations. But more importantly, the act leashed China from forcibly claiming Taiwan. This unique domestic legislation asserted that the US would “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character” and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security of the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan.” In the intervening 30 years, the United States has sold defensive weapons to the island to maintain the balance of power and have deployed US warships to keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait.

As the co-chair of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus and the chief sponsor of the 30th anniversary resolution, Representative Shelley Berkley said, “Taiwan is an inspiring story of expanding freedom, a robust capitalist economy and a strong trading partner of the United States.” While speaking on the House floor, she urged others to protect Taiwan. “We must do everything in our power to continue protecting it and ensuring its survival,” she said in the Taipei-based China Post.

Although many have criticized the TRA for being ambiguous and vague, the act has withstood the test of time by keeping a lid on simmering tensions across the Taiwan Strait. By pledging defensive support for Taiwan, the TRA has given the island the stability to develop from an authoritarian, agricultural society to an affluent democratic country. In the last 30 years, Taiwan’s per capita gross domestic product has jumped from US$1,957 in 1979 to US$17,116 in 2008. This arrangement has not only benefited Taiwan, but also the United States. In the last year alone, trade between Taiwan and the US totaled US$57.1 billion, making the island the 10th-largest trading partner of the US.

In place of an embassy and consulates, the TRA allowed the promotion of bi-lateral relations by setting up the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the United States. These two entities have worked “to maintain peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific” and to continue the “commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan.” Despite the pitfalls, the TRA has provided US-Taiwan relations with a sense of normality.

Much has been said about the Taiwan Relations Act’s vagueness, and many groups have lobbied to strengthen or weaken the act. Although the TRA asserted that “nothing in this act may be construed as a basis for supporting the exclusion or expulsion of Taiwan from continued membership in any international financial institution or any other international organization,” Taiwan has met with limited success in participating in international organizations. The island finally gained membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), but is still excluded from the United Nations (UN) and the World Health Organization (WHO). For the last 10 years, the government in Taipei has pushed heavily for the island’s inclusion in the WHO and the UN. At the same time, China has mustered its substantial influence to counter Taiwan.

Under President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, the government has sought to upgrade Taiwan’s relations with free trade agreements (FTA), visa-free entries and bilateral extraction treaties. Yet, Taiwan has no FTA with the United States or China, leaving the island’s export-oriented economy at a significant disadvantage. Unlike the independence-focused Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Ma’s Kuomintang Party (KMT) sees Taiwan’s success closely tied to the mainland. As such, Ma has worked to complete the three-links (air, sea and mail) and to foster closer ties with Beijing.

Taiwan’s improved relations with China are reassuring to the United States, which often finds itself refereeing cross-strait conflicts. According to the Central News Agency, AIT Chairman Raymond Burghardt finds this era of cross-strait stability “very favorable to U.S. interests.” The diffused tension has allowed greater cooperation and opportunities for the people on both sides. In a recent meeting with Burghardt at the presidential office, Ma said, “I hope these positive developments will continue and that they will eventually benefit Taiwan, China and the United States.”

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About Me

The Press Division of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in San Francisco represents the Government Information Office (GIO), Executive Yuan, Republic of China (Taiwan). GIO maintains nine Press Divisions in the United States, including the San Francisco office. The Press Divisions are in charge of promoting Taiwan's public relations and cultural exchanges. This blog is updated by the Press Division, TECO in San Francisco.