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Stephen M. Young On Taiwan: The Taiwan Relations Act at Forty

Following his breakthrough trip to China in 1972, President Richard Nixon had intended to move quickly toward formal recognition of Beijing, but domestic scandal forced his resignation two years later, and the moment passed. China fell into disorder and a successional struggle following the death of Mao (毛澤東) in 1976.

Detente with Moscow began to weaken as the Soviet Union continued its aggressive behavior in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, exacerbated by the Party leader Leonid Brezhnev’s declining health. The Sino-Soviet rift, which began in the late fifties, had disintegrated into border clashes and ideological feuding by the late seventies. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), continued the hostile policy toward China’s northern neighbor. Thus it seemed natural for the US to finally formalize reality by establishing formal diplomatic relations with Beijing under President Jimmy Carter as of January 1, 1979.

Though this didn’t come as a complete shock to Taipei, it was nonetheless a major blow to the island state, which had been hemorrhaging formal diplomatic partners to China already for some time. The Carter Administration, focused on a hostile attitude toward Moscow, decided to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing, to reflect the warming nature of the bilateral relationship.

Taiwan was almost an afterthought, from the Carter White House’s perspective. The US Embassy on Chung Shan Road was closed, and the staff of the mission began informal meetings at the home of the former Deputy Chief of Mission. Washington had given relatively little thought to what would come next with Taipei, though it did leave its diplomatic staff in place for the time being.

Fortunately for Taiwan, it retained many friends in the US, including a well-organized pro-Taiwan group in the Congress. Working with friends of Taiwan in the State Department ranks, as well as academics and a sympathetic Taiwan-American population, Congress quickly came up with draft legislation that became known as the Taiwan Relations Act, which passed Congress that March and was signed into law by President Carter on April 10, 1979.

The TRA, now approaching its fortieth anniversary, has proved an enduring piece of legislation, sustained by continuing Congressional and public support. The TRA formalized the existence of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). It also provided for military arms sales as well as an informal structure of contacts between Washington and Taipei, that aimed to maintain the same spirit of close relations long enjoyed prior to the break in relations.

I showed up in Taipei in April, 1981, a young Foreign Service Officer excited to be returning to a place where I had lived in as a boy nearly twenty years earlier. I found the American staff there still quite cautious not to press the boundaries of formality in our dealings with local authorities. But the election of old Taiwan friend Ronald Reagan to the White House, and his appointment of veteran Sinologist Jim Lilley as second Director of AIT, began a shift toward more cordial and expansive dealings with our old friends on the island. Our local counterparts also found creative ways to sustain vital relations, as always bolstered by a sympathetic US Congress.

Much has changed in the ensuing four decades. Taiwan has prospered economically and matured into a modern democratic society, one of the most open in all of East Asia. The economy has moved through several stages, ensuring its competitiveness both regionally and globally. Under Deng Xiaoping, China has emerged as one of the largest economies in the world, sustained by high growth rates despite the regime’s reluctance to match that with meaningful political liberalization.

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