Mon, Feb 11, 2019 - Page 6 News List

John J. Tkacik, Jr. On Taiwan: After 40 years, AIT officers should be Senate-confirmed

In my interminable research into the history of America’s relationship with Taiwan, my thoughts drift back 40 years to February 1979, a cold and snowy month which threatened to cool the Congress’s enthusiasm for a fight with President Jimmy Carter over his complicated and slapdash machinery for derecognizing Taipei. Arctic snowbanks and government shutdowns notwithstanding, the full memberships of the foreign relations committees in both houses of Congress convened their continuous series of hearings on the Carter Administration’s version of a “Taiwan Enabling Act” which stretched into the following month. On Taiwan, it was the second week of the jiwei (己未) “Year of the Ram,” and traditionally, the Ram’s Year is a year of “patience.” But it cannot have seemed, at the time, to be auspicious.

Yet, patience paid off for Taiwan. The clean legislation which emerged from the concurrent House and Senate consultations and deliberations was significantly more coherent than the original cut-and-paste drafts submitted by the State Department. The new and improved “Taiwan Relations Act” included two entire sections which Senator Jacob Javits (R-NY) described as “functionally equivalent to a security treaty” taking the place, to the horror of the State Department, of the expiring “US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty.” On the other hand, the TRA preserved State Department language that ensured that Taiwan would be treated as the functional equivalent of an independent country in American law by American government entities on all levels, something State Department lawyers knew was essential to future US relations with Taiwan.

But the sections which were the least sexy were also the most abstruse and opaque to the untrained eye. They were the Potemkin bureaucracy of shadow go-betweens actually intended to execute the totality of official American relations with Taiwan, known as “The American Institute in Taiwan.” It was over these sections of vague descriptions of minimal congressional supervision and oversight, that the transcripts of Senate and House deliberations reflect the purblindness of eyeballs glazed-over.

The Congress had long been aware that “normal” diplomatic relations with China demanded that the United States have “abnormal” relations with Taiwan. At one point, the requirement that the US abandon Taiwan was so outrageous that even Chairman Mao Zedong (毛澤東) could not understand why the United States wanted to go through with it. “We have established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and with India,” he once explained to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “but they are not even as good as our relations with you.” Mao continued, “this issue is not an important one, the issue of the overall international situation is the important one.”

But in December 1978, Mao was dead, and his successor, Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), anticipated a war with Vietnam and the concomitant nuclear threats from the Soviet Union. Deng suddenly relaxed the conditions for US recognition, no longer stipulating that the US cease arms sales to Taiwan, or that all treaties and agreements be invalidated. This came as a surprise in the State Department which had developed only inchoate notions of how an “unofficial,” non-governmental corporation could assume the complex and interconnected burdens of America’s official relations with Taiwan. As the late David Dean describes it in his important memoir “Unofficial Diplomacy,” an “American Institute in Taiwan” was pulled together on an ad hoc basis by the late Richard Holbrooke, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs, after the December 15 normalization agreement and hastily staffed with retired foreign service officers on the authority of Secretary Holbrooke’s initials.

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