On Tuesday, Hoover Institution scholars addressed China’s recent tightening of policy surrounding Taiwan and considered what the United States’ role should be in maintaining the three-way political balance.
The roundtable discussion, titled “The Taiwan Relations Act and Forty Years of U.S.-Taiwan-China Triangular Relations,” was hosted by the Hoover Institution Library & Archives in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which in April 1979 set the framework of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship despite the lack of formal diplomatic relations.
“The [TRA] responded to the circumstances and substance of the undertakings of the normalization of U.S.-China relations,” said Alice L. Miller, Hoover Institution research fellow and East Asian studies lecturer.
In January 1979, following secret negotiations between President Jimmy Carter and the People’s Republic of China, the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations normalized and outlined U.S.-China relations. It recognized the People’s Republic as the legal government of China and acknowledged the “Chinese position” that there exists one China, with Taiwan being part of China.
Although the Joint Communiqué revoked the 1954 Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty, which had created a security pact between the U.S. and Taiwan, it also allowed for an unofficial relationship with Taiwan and reiterated American interest in the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region, according to Miller.
“Each of [the Joint Communiqué’s] terms [was] key in understanding why the TRA was framed as it was,” said Miller. “The Carter administration did recognize the need to work with Congress after normalization.”
According to Miller, the TRA offered the legal framework and institutional mechanisms to conduct unofficial American relations in the absence of formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. It also considered questions of security guarantees and arms deals with Taiwan.
“[The TRA] contains dilemmas and ambiguities that have introduced debates, controversies and stresses, now and again,” Miller said. “But it is still the framework we’re operating with today.”
Miller was followed by Hoover Institution distinguished visiting fellow and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Elizabeth Economy. In her presentation, Economy focused on the changing dynamics of the U.S.-Taiwan-China relationship that are affecting the TRA.
Economy noted that Xi Jin Ping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, has tightened his approach toward Taiwan since its election of President Tsai Ing Wen in 2016. In particular, Economy said, Xi has worked to restrict Taiwan economically, militarily and diplomatically.
“[Xi is] adopting a policy or approach that makes use of coercion, of some inducements, but also a deeper penetration in some respects into Taiwanese society,” Economy said. “I think it’s important to consider this in the context of a broader move on the part of Xi Jin Ping … from staking claims around sovereignty to realizing them.”
Economy also spoke to what she sees as the pillars of Tsai Ing Wen’s policy. These include reducing dependence on China, strengthening relations with the U.S., increasing security expenditures and bringing back corporations from overseas.
Economy then turned to diversity of U.S. motivations in supporting Taiwan. She said some Americans support Taiwan because they see it as a democracy that shares American values, while others see it as an essential part of a broader security strategy. Still others view it as a potential bargaining chip.
In regard to trilateral relations between the U.S., China and Taiwan, Economy mentioned difficulties posed by lack of communication.
“I think that we have three leaders that are driving toward endgames that are not necessarily compatible,” she said. “Dialogue has essentially broken down between the U.S. and China, and certainly between Taiwan and China. There’s a lack of trust between [the three countries].”
According to Economy, the U.S. is trying to cooperate more with Taiwan and enhance its position as a partner — if not an official ally — in the Pacific. She noted that while the Trump administration has the strongest group of Taiwan supporters she has seen in the last 25 years, normalizing relations with Taiwan may nevertheless lead to complications.
“There is a sense within the administration, which I personally agree with to some extent, that we shouldn’t construct all of our Taiwan policy with an eye towards how Beijing will feel about it,” Economy said. “I think that is important, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the sensitivities in Beijing as well.”
Contact Michelle Leung at mleung2 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Emily Wan at emilywan ‘at’ stanford.edu.