Washington Times

After 45 Years, the Taiwan Relations Act Is No Longer Enough

Distinguished Fellow
Senior Fellow and Director, China Center
A brigade of the People’s Liberation Army takes part in a combat drill in Zhangzhou, China, on September 2, 2022. (CFOTO via Getty Images)
A brigade of the People’s Liberation Army takes part in a combat drill in Zhangzhou, China, on September 2, 2022. (CFOTO via Getty Images)

The Taiwan Relations Act, enacted 45 years ago, is a pivotal moment in the complex tapestry of international relations, particularly between the United States, Taiwan and China.

This legislation emerged from a bipartisan rebuke of President Jimmy Carter’s rapid move to sever official ties with Taiwan in favor of recognizing China. It was a legislative effort to preserve some semblance of diplomatic engagement and support for Taiwan, reflecting deep concerns about the executive branch’s unilateral decisions in foreign policy, particularly those influenced by the exigencies of political survival and perceived strategic advantages.

It’s time to unpack the multifaceted implications of the Taiwan Relations Act, the lessons learned from its historical context, and the enduring challenges it presents in the current geopolitical climate.

Historical context and immediate implications are as rich as the Act’s wisdom and legal craftsmanship.

The Taiwan Relations Act was a direct response to the Carter administration’s decision to recognize Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China, effectively sidelining Taiwan, a long-standing ally and strategic partner.

The act served as a critical legislative check on the executive’s foreign policy prerogatives, ensuring that any changes in the policy toward Taiwan would require congressional input. It provided Taiwan with a protected legal status within U.S. domestic jurisdiction, ensured military support for its self-defense, and opposed any non-peaceful means to alter Taiwan‘s status. Essentially, it codified the U.S. commitment to Taiwan‘s security and legal protection in the U.S. in the absence of formal diplomatic recognition.

The enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act and the circumstances leading up to it reveal several crucial lessons about U.S. foreign policy and its engagement with China.

First, it highlights the folly of “playing the China card” without fully appreciating the strategic long game of the Chinese Communist Party. The U.S.’s initial engagement with Beijing was driven by a desire to outmaneuver the Soviet Union without adequately considering the Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions and its view of the U.S. as a perennial adversary.

In the end, China outmaneuvered the United States in the great strategic game, and the Communist Party’s leaders have proved far more adroit and effective practitioners of playing the America card.

Second, the U.S. demonstrated a remarkable naivete regarding the Chinese government’s internal dynamics and strategic intentions. The American misreading of Chinese leaders’ intentions and the lack of understanding of the Communist Party’s operational logic at a time of a fierce power struggle engineered by Deng Xiaoping against his internal political rivals underscored a significant flaw in U.S. diplomatic strategy, which often mistook tactical maneuvers for major policy shifts and strategic wiles.

Third, the period marked a crisis of confidence in American political and institutional greatness, exacerbated by internal scandals and policy failures. This crisis influenced the U.S. approach to international relations, leading to a reduction in its global leadership role, a misjudgment of Taiwan‘s strategic importance, and a gross overestimate of China’s strategic and economic indispensability for the U.S., as vigorously promoted by generations of Chinese Communist Party lobbyists in the upper echelons of American society.

Fourth, the U.S. underestimated the leverage and moral authority it held as a beacon of freedom and democracy, particularly in relation to China‘s need for legitimacy and fear of internal dissent. This misapprehension led to missed opportunities to leverage American influence and inspirational power over the freedom-loving and repressed Chinese people in negotiations with China.

Finally, the U.S. failed to recognize China’s negotiation strategy, often acquiescing to unreasonable demands of feigned outrage from China‘s ruling party because of a misperception of China’s strategic position and intentions.

It has become imperative to reevaluate the Taiwan Relations Act in contemporary geopolitics.

While the Taiwan Relations Act has served as a bulwark against precipitous shifts in U.S.-Taiwan relations, the geopolitical landscape has evolved significantly. The rise of China as a global power, its military modernization, assertive foreign policy posture, and above all, Taiwan’s remarkable transition to a democratic nation present new challenges.

The Taiwan Relations Act, though foundational, may no longer be sufficient to address the complexities of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations, not least of which is Taiwan’s development into a mature and sovereign nation eager for America’s help in recognizing its rightful place in the international community.

The U.S. must reassess its strategy toward Taiwan and China, taking into account the lessons of 1979, to ensure that past misjudgments do not bind it but are instead guided by a clear-eyed understanding of the current strategic environment, and most importantly, by upholding America’s upright moral obligations to recognize Taiwan diplomatically as a free and independent nation of a proud people with a new birth of sovereignty and nationhood since the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act 45 years ago.

Read in the Washington Times.