Thursday marks the 35th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, one of the most important pieces of legislation with which I have been associated. This landmark law has contributed vitally to the security and stability of the Republic of China and continues to guide our countries’ relations.
The TRA is one of those rare acts that illustrate the essential role that Congress can play in policymaking. Following upon President Richard Nixon’s historic overture to the People’s Republic of China, President Jimmy Carter decided to establish formal diplomatic relations with the regime. In his view, that meant summarily severing our ties with Taiwan — a prospect that alarmed a number of us in the Senate and House. We recognized that Taiwan was a valuable U.S. ally in the region, appreciated its loyal logistical support over the years (especially during the Korean and Vietnam wars), realized that we benefited from extensive trade involving many U.S. states and knew that we were bound by a security treaty of more than 20 years’ standing.
In one of my first forays into national security policymaking, I joined Sen. Richard Stone, D-Fla., in sponsoring an amendment to require the administration to undertake “full prior” consultation with the Congress before changing any U.S. policy toward Taiwan. The amendment, which was developed under the direction of my talented foreign policy aide Robert Downen, passed unanimously, but the White House did not take it seriously. In mid-December 1978. Carter dramatically announced that the United States would recognize China and cut ties with Taiwan on Jan. 1, 1979. Its “full prior” consultation with Congress was two hours’ notice to the relevant committee leaders of the president’s impending speech.
Alienated by the president’s approach and the weak substance of his proposed new policy, Congress — in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle — kicked into high gear. It rejected the State Department’s minimalist recommendations for future links with Taiwan and passed the TRA, which recognized the importance of the relationship by, among other things, ensuring continued military sales, establishing a framework for the conduct of official business, and maintaining our dynamic economic links — all below the threshold of full diplomatic ties.
Congressional supporters of the TRA had great faith in Taiwan back in 1979, but could hardly have imagined how much progress the country would make in the ensuing decades. Today, Taiwan is one of the 20 largest economies in the world. It is our nation’s 11th-largest trading partner. We are Taiwan’s third-largest trading partner, after China and Japan. Then a one-party political state, Taiwan is now a vibrant, multiparty democracy.
In the past five years, Taiwan has made particularly significant strides internationally. Taipei and Beijing entered into a landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, a preferential trade treaty that is providing each country with billions of dollars in annual trade advantages. Taiwan also won observer status in the World Health Organization and has been admitted as a guest for the first time in the assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization.