America's "special" Asian relationship

TAIPEI — It's not often that people celebrate the 30th birthday of a dry, obscure piece of U.S. legislation. But for this small island democracy, the Taiwan Relations Act — passed into law by the U.S. Congress on April 10, 1979 — is no ordinary bill.

Little known by most Americans, the act commits the U.S. to help defend Taiwan from Chinese aggression. And it defines America's unique relationship with the island.

But now, as Taiwan-China relations enter an unprecedented warming period, some are wondering whether the law needs a face-lift. A chorus of observers is saying the act has outlived its usefulness.

For 30 years the document has guided U.S. support for Taiwan, under the shadow of China's military threat. (Beijing insists Taiwan is Chinese territory, to be absorbed by force if necessary.)

In recent decades this island became an export powerhouse, and is now a critical link in the global high-tech supply chain. Meanwhile, since 1987, Taiwan has morphed from a heavy-handed autocracy to one of Asia's democratic success stories.

The U.S. takes some credit for that. "Our policy, as ambiguous and fraught with dilemmas as it may be, has worked," said Robert Wang, deputy director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy here, at a recent forum. "It's enabled Taiwan to develop its economy and to develop its democracy."

A bit of back-story: The Taiwan Relations Act resulted from a tussle between Jimmy Carter's White House and Congress over Asia policy. Carter formalized U.S. recognition of the communist regime in Beijing, a process begun by Richard Nixon's famous ice-breaking trip to China in 1972.

That left Taiwan — then still led by Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang regime — in the lurch.

Outraged U.S. congressmen didn't like to see the U.S. kicking to the curb a staunch World War II and anti-communist ally. So they drafted the Taiwan Relations Act to ensure that the U.S. maintained strong ties with Taiwan.

The result is perhaps America's most unusual arrangement with a foreign nation. Call it the diplomatic relationship that dare not speak its name.

Taipei's American Institute in Taiwan performs all the functions of a U.S. embassy, but formally speaking it's not an embassy.

Ditto the ambassador here: Technically, he's no ambassador.

The island bristles with U.S. fighter jets, Patriot missiles and other weaponry — yet uniformed U.S. military personnel are not supposed to set foot on Taiwan's soil.

Nor are Cabinet-level officials. If a U.S. secretary of state or president ever did drop by, it would spark an international incident. (Read: China would go ballistic.)

But since the Cold War-era Taiwan Relations Act became law, this region has changed dramatically.

Most surprising, the Kuomintang — who once swore up and down they would have nothing to do with commie "bandits" — have now become bosom buddies with the Chinese Communist Party.

Since it took power a year ago, a new KMT administration has sidled up to Beijing to forge closer economic links. The next round of talks, due next month or June, will address banking ties and crime-fighting.

Some optimists are even talking peace deal.

"Because of the new situation, Taiwan-China relations are quite different from 30 years ago," said Lin Cheng-yi, from Taiwan's Academia Sinica. "Some might argue that the current government is pursuing a policy of 'creeping unification.'"

All of which leads to the question: Is it time to rewrite — even scrap — the Taiwan Relations Act, to fit new realities?

A growing number of experts think so. One is Robert Sutter, formerly with the CIA and State Department, and one of America's top Asia hands. In a recent paper, Sutter argues that U.S. policy is obsolete, as China ups its diplomatic, economic and military edge over Taiwan.

"Recent developments suggest that the longstanding notion of U.S.-supported balance in the Taiwan Strait is no longer viable in the face of ever-increasing Chinese influence over Taiwan," he wrote.

Still, there are several reasons why the Taiwan Relations Act probably won't be eighty-sixed anytime soon.

For one, Taiwan would strongly object. As friendly as Taipei may be getting with China, it still craves global recognition. The Taiwan Relations Act is the next best thing to formal recognition from America — so any tinkering would be viewed with alarm.

"Does the TRA in practice imply statehood for Taiwan?" asked Andrew Hsia, Taiwan's vice foreign minister, at the forum. "We believe so."

Other experts note that although the Taiwan Relations Act may be outdated, Taiwan is so far down Obama's priority list that it's unlikely to be changed.

Wang, the AIT official, took an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach at the forum. "[U.S.] policy has worked for the past 30 years," Wang said. "So there's no urgency in Washington or elsewhere in wanting to change this."

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