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America's "special" Asian relationship

The Taiwan Relations Act turns 30. Is it still relevant?

The Taipei city skyline Feb. 9, 2009. (Nicky Loh/Reuters)

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.