Twenty Years of the Taiwan Relations Act and Beyond
By William Van Swearingen
As thousands of frightened refugees from Kosovo recently streamed into Macedonia, the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan joined in the international effort to ease their suffering. The tiny island republic, 100 miles off the coast of mainland China, sent a chartered jet with relief workers, medical supplies, food, and clothing, along with financial assistance.
Taiwan's representative in Washington, Stephen S. F. Chen, is proud of this latest effort, which recalls his country's similar response last fall to victims of Hurricane Mitch in Central America.
Once the recipient of large amounts of U.S. aid in the 1950's and 1960's, Taiwan is now a donor of foreign assistance. Mr. Chen says this transformation is but a chapter in his country's economic and political success story, which, he is confident, history will judge favorably.
A seasoned diplomat with 46 years of service, he is proud to serve his country at this critical period and knows that whatever future relationship evolves between Taiwan and mainland China, time is on his country's side.
'In 1949, few gave us any chance for survival. Yet we've survived, prospered and transformed ourselves into a representative democracy,' he says.
Mr. Chen makes clear to visitors the reality that the reunification of China is the ultimate goal for both his government and that of the People's Republic of China (PRC). However, he emphasizes that any reunification must ensure the survival of Taiwan's democratic and prosperous system for its 22 million people. That goal, he insists, can only be achieved if the PRC renounces the use of force against Taiwan and becomes a democracy.
Until that day, both mainland China and Taiwan will continue to pursue their own international relations. In 1971, the People's Republic of China (on the mainland) took the Republic of China's seat at the United Nations, and Taiwan's diplomatic position eroded, as many countries changed their official recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Today, Taiwan has official diplomatic ties with only 28 countries. But despite the lack of official recognition, Mr. Chen says, 'We can be a model for many other countries as well as the PRC.'
The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979
Recently Taiwan officials gathered in Washington along with Congressional supporters to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the landmark U.S. legislation governing relations with Taiwan-the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) of 1979.
This piece of legislation is unique in diplomatic history in that it is a domestic U.S. law governing relations with another country. The TRA was a response, largely by Congress, aimed at preserving the long-standing friendship and common interests between the United States and Taiwan in the absence of formal diplomatic ties.
On January 1, 1979, the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, thereby 'derecognizing' its former ally, the Republic of China, as the sole legal government of China.
'We never had any doubt about America's commitment to maintain cultural, commercial and other relations with us through the Taiwan Relations Act,' Chen says emphatically. But, he admits the TRA's ambiguous language has, on more than one occasion, presented challenges for his country. For example, in the area of military support, he says Taiwan had to lobby and wait 11 years to get F-16 aircraft.
He concedes the TRA is very clear about the right to sell defensive weapons to Taiwan in sufficient quantities to preserve its security. And this, he says, is a cautious reminder to Beijing about acceptable behavior, while leaving the terms of America's response up to each administration to decide. 'I would say we feel more secure as a result of TRA, which has helped us create the proper framework in which to prosper.'
An important provision of the TRA created the legal authority for the conduct of unofficial relations between the United States and Taiwan. The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) with headquarters in Washington, DC and offices in Taiwan, issues visas, assists U.S. citizens in Taiwan and handles commercial and cultural affairs for the two countries. Its counterpart organization, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), headed by Representative Chen in Washington, DC, includes 12 other offices in cities all over the U.S.A., known as Taipei Economic and Cultural Offices (TECO).
David Laux, president of the US-ROC (Taiwan) Business Council, a 200-member association of U.S. companies, has known Representative Chen for more than 15 years. He says Chen is a good problem-solver, scholar and lover of language and literature. Chen used to write a popular literary column for a newspaper back home. He once carried on and eventually won a four-month debate with a colleague on the origin of the peanut. He also speaks Portuguese and Spanish, having been posted in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. He also knows six Chinese dialects.
Taiwan's Economic Push
Fifty years ago Taiwan was an underdeveloped agricultural island. Today it is an economic power, a leading producer of electronics and computer products, chemicals, textiles and plastics. It is America's seventh largest trading partner. In the last two years, it has purchased six times more exports from the United States than Russia and over the last ten years, purchased nearly twice the number of American products as the PRC according to the US-ROC (Taiwan) Business Council.
Taiwan has moved from being a recipient of U.S. aid to an aid donor and major foreign investor-the world's seventh largest. With $93 billion, Taiwan has the world's third largest foreign exchange reserves and has averaged 6.5 percent annual growth over the past six years. Mention the Asian economic crisis and Representative Chen pulls a list of these statistics from his vest pocket to explain why his country has weathered the crisis so well. In addition, he cites his country's recent political metamorphosis as another factor.
'I feel our democracy, with free elections at all levels and our well-managed banking system, have prevented the corruption that has pulled down other Asian economies,' he says.
In 1987 Taiwan lifted a decree triggering martial law, under which dissident groups and individuals were often dealt with harshly. The State Department's Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Stanley Roth, says human rights violations are no longer a necessary topic of discussion between the United States and Taiwan. 'Politically, Taiwan has a vibrant democracy characterized by free elections, a free press and dynamic political campaigns.' The country held its first direct presidential election in 1996.
As for the future, Mr. Chen expresses optimism that his country's political and economic success will influence change in the PRC and lead to eventual reunification under terms acceptable to Taiwan. 'But now we are only at stage one of a three-part grand strategy,' he says.
Yet, the economic figures of this stage tell an impressive story. Asian experts point to the dramatic transformation in the Taipei-Beijing relationship since the enactment of the TRA. Trade between the two has since grown on average by 13 percent in the period 1993-1998, making the PRC Taiwan's third largest trading partner after the United States and Japan. There are now 30,000 Taiwan firms located in the PRC, employing over three million mainland Chinese, according to Chen.
These economic ties have led to increased people-to-people contacts. Up to 200,000 Taiwan business people now live on the mainland. Since travel opened up there ten years ago, ten million people from Taiwan have visited the PRC. 'We do not yet permit large-scale infrastructure investments there, but our people's presence can only have a good influence,' says Chen.
'Just imagine,' he says without hesitation, 'history may write some day that the whole of China became a democracy thanks to us.'