Taiwan Relations Act 30 Years Later: Q&A with Julian Chang

April 10, 2009
By Kate Hoagland, Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). Enacted on April 10, 1979, the bill continued the commercial and cultural relationships between the United States and the Republic of China (Taiwan) despite the severance of formal diplomatic ties between the two sides. Recently, the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School and the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University convened many of those involved in the act’s passage to discuss the TRA’s legacy and share potential implications for relations among the United States, Taiwan and China going forward.

Julian Chang, executive director of Asia Programs of the Ash Institute, shares some of the insights discussed at the Taiwan Studies Conference.

What is the significance of the Taiwan Relations Act? Why do scholars view this act as the best solution for dealing with an intractable problem?

I think the significance of the Taiwan Relations Act really depends on your perspective. The TRA was an act of Congress designed to preserve the maximum amount of flexibility between the United States and Taiwan while acknowledging that peace in the Western Pacific remains instrumental to regional development. The act allowed the United States to cut through the major diplomatic Gordian Knot of how to improve its relationship with the People’s Republic of China without severing 40 plus years of friendship with Taiwan.

The view of the TRA from Taiwan was a little less sanguine. During the 1970s, I think Taiwan gradually realized the inevitability of losing formal diplomatic ties with America. Nevertheless, as one of the top trade partners for the United States Taiwan understood the importance of maintaining some type of relationship with America. China takes an entirely different perspective on the TRA, still viewing Taiwan as part of its own country and believing there is only one China ruled by the Beijing government. Yet, during the negotiations around the TRA, the Chinese government very pragmatically understood that America wanted to uphold some aspects of its longstanding relationship with Taiwan.

How has the TRA affected Taiwan and China?

In the last 30 years, Taiwan has evolved culturally, commercially, intellectually, politically and economically from a one-party dictatorship under martial law to a very vibrant democracy with a truly active and engaged press. Yet, I think it has been psychologically difficult for Taiwan to be gradually shunted aside. Despite this, whether it is due to the U.S. presence or the TRA itself, there has been a huge shift in how the Taiwanese think about their country and their relationship to China. Some people are more comfortable with Taiwan’s progress of cultural awakening, while some of Taiwan’s older generation will never give up the dream of a unified China.

Of course with the dramatic economic growth in China, Taiwan is now in a weaker economic position than ever before. There are hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese businessmen living in China, and there is very active cross-strait investment mostly from Taiwan to the mainland.

From China’s perspective, I think the country would have preferred if the United States had viewed Taiwan as a Chinese domestic issue. While, realistically, China can treat Taiwan in whatever way it sees fit, the country must take the United States into consideration due to the provisions established in the TRA. Despite some saber rattling in 1996 and an overall escalation in military tensions then, I think China has found a more reasonable counterpart in the Ma Ying-jeou Nationalist government in Taiwan.

Can the TRA continue to play a role for the indefinite future? What challenges do you foresee to the TRA as it relates to globalization and the economy?

In our recent Taiwan Conference, Ambassador Stapleton Roy stated, “Don’t touch the TRA unless you really know what you are doing, and if you really know what you are doing, you wouldn’t touch it.” I agree with his statement and while there are some issues with the TRA, I think it can serve to support conversations on a lengthy list of cross-border challenges. From the environment and human rights to international relations and terrorism, these issues require more cooperation among the United States, China and Taiwan than ever before, and the TRA will not stand in the way of that.

At the same time, I think the TRA does require the United States to do a bit more internal soul searching to better clarify its interests in relation to Taiwan and China. I think preserving peace in the Western Pacific should remain core to U.S. interests, and all other pieces of these important diplomatic relationships can be worked out within the context of that overriding concern.

Julian Chang

Chang said in the last 30 years Taiwan has evolved culturally, commercially, intellectually, politically and economically - yet there have been psychological effects from being gradually shunted aside.

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