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  • The Taiwan Relations Act:Past, Present, Future
  • Shelley Rigger (bio)

When the United States normalized relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, it agreed to derecognize Taiwan (officially named the Republic of China, or ROC). Beijing made derecognition a precondition for establishing diplomatic ties in an effort to overcome what it saw as a long-standing wrong: the separation of Taiwan from the Chinese mainland. Then, as now, Beijing wanted to incorporate Taiwan into the PRC, and it wanted the United States to get out of its way. Taiwan had been detached from China since 1895, when it became a Japanese colony, but at the end of World War II it was handed over to the Chinese government—at that time, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist-led ROC, which had ruled China since 1912. In 1949, Communist forces drove the Nationalist government off the mainland, but they were unable to capture its stronghold, Taiwan. The ROC hung on thanks to its outsized armed forces, its military alliance with the United States, and one hundred miles of choppy water.

The architects of U.S.-PRC normalization understood that without U.S. support, Taiwan would be hard-pressed to withstand Beijing's efforts to absorb it. They did not anticipate that the ROC would last long as a separate, self-governing entity once the United States shifted its recognition to the PRC, and they were willing to accept that outcome. President Richard Nixon's national security adviser Henry Kissinger said as much in a 1971 exchange with Zhou Enlai recounted by Nancy Bernkopf Tucker:

Zhou Enlai asserted to Kissinger without hesitation that "the U.S. must recognize that the PRC is the sole legitimate government in China and that Taiwan Province is an inalienable part of Chinese territory which must be restored to the motherland." Kissinger replied, "As a student of history, one's prediction would have to be that the political evolution is likely to be in the direction which Prime Minister Zhou Enlai indicated to me." Kissinger continued by assuring Zhou, "We will not stand in the way of basic evolution."1 [End Page 11]

By the time the normalization process was reaching its final stage under President Jimmy Carter, the United States was committed to derecognizing Taiwan and ending the mutual defense treaty. Fortunately for Taiwan, however, the White House did not have the last word. As the process neared completion, there still was one more actor waiting to speak: the U.S. Congress. Congress could not reverse the decision on normalization, but it did what it could to soften the blow. Congress's gift to Taipei was the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

The TRA satisfies no one. Beijing sees the ongoing attention to Taiwan's security that is required by U.S. law as a betrayal of U.S. commitments, while Taiwan would much prefer to be treated as a full state. Many Americans, too, wish the United States could take a stronger position one way or the other than the TRA allows. I will argue, however, that the TRA's ambiguity is a virtue, not a vice. Coming up with an alternative that improves on the TRA enough to justify the inevitable backlash from Beijing (which would be directed at Taipei more than Washington) is considerably harder than one might imagine.

The Significance of the TRA

The TRA created an innovative framework in U.S. law and policy that allows the United States to interact with an unrecognized state. Legally, the ROC is dead to the United States; in practice, it is very much alive. The law gives Taiwan a unique legal and political position, with the country being neither formally recognized nor entirely abandoned. Recently, some advocates for a more robust U.S. policy toward Taiwan have been asking how much longer this limbo should continue. They wonder whether the United States should do more to strengthen the island's position in the face of growing pressure from the PRC.2

The TRA defines its goals as "to help maintain peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific and to promote the foreign policy of the United States by authorizing the continuation...


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