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The Taiwan Studies Program celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act amid escalating tensions with China

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The UW Taiwan Studies Program, started in 2017 and housed in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) which provided the framework for the U.S.-Taiwan relationship ever since the official recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

For this TRA at 40 event, the Taiwan Studies Program hosted a panel with three guest speakers: Shirley Kan, a former independent specialist in Asian security affairs for the Congressional Research Service (CRS); Lt. Colonel Steve Li, the first Ph.D. student in the Taiwan Studies Program to be sponsored by the U.S. Air Force; and David Bachman, a professor at the Jackson School and former chair of the China Studies Program.

In 1979, Congress enacted the TRA which was meant to “declare that peace and stability in the area are in the political, security, and economic interests of the United States, and are matters of international concern.” The TRA further allows the United States to sell arms to Taiwan and enable Taiwan to have sufficient capability to defend itself.

The creation of the TRA was in response to then-President Jimmy Carter’s decision to recognize the communist PRC, and thus formally breaking diplomatic ties with the Taiwan nationalist government in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

Kan said that the intention of the TRA is to protect Taiwan regardless of the “One China Policy:” the acknowledgment of China's position that there can only be one Chinese government, which sees Taiwan as a breakaway province to be inevitably reunified with mainland China.

“There’s a notion among people that somehow, in 1949 when the U.S. derecognized Taiwan and recognized the PRC government, the U.S. abandoned Taiwan,” Kan said. “I would like to dispel this notion. The very fact that we enacted the Taiwan Relations Act means that the U.S. never abandoned Taiwan and is not considering to abandon Taiwan now.”

Li, having spent half of his 20-year career as a special operations pilot and a foreign area officer in the Indo-Pacific region, focuses his research on how Taiwan’s level of military spending potentially impacts the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

“Today, China continues to maintain that Taiwan is a part of China and that any movement on Taiwan’s part toward independence could result in armed conflict,” Li said. “I want to say a big thank you to China for being such a belligerent and a bully. The U.S.-Taiwan relationship has been stronger than ever.”   

Li echoed Kan’s concern that Taiwan needs to improve its own strategic communications, investing in media not only to reshape Taiwan’s image but also to counter the PRC’s propaganda and the false reports from the Chinese media. This past January, China’s President Xi Jinping asserted in a public statement that Taiwan’s unification is the ultimate goal and that the shift toward independence will potentially be met by force. Li asserted that Taiwan needs to communicate better to secure international support and defend itself against China’s political warfare.

“Why does the Trump administration support Taiwan’s survival?” Li continued. “It’s notably for the peace and survival of Taiwan, but it’s also for the wider Indo-Pacific region. Do we really know how a ‘peaceful resolution’ story will end?”

An old gentleman in the audience stood up and asked — with great urgency — when Taiwan will formally be recognized as an independent state, and what the panelists think the outcome of Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election will look like. Kan replied that this is ultimately for Taiwan’s people to decide, but the United States is observing and is deeply interested.

“The bedrock of American support is because of Taiwan’s democracy, and the preservation of the human rights of the Taiwanese people is a main objective of the U.S.,” professor David Bachman said. “Democracy is the articulation of conflict of interest and shared interest, and I see it as a good thing.”

Bachman also pointed out that the United States must de-link its Taiwan policy with its China policy, explaining that the TRA was meant to rebalance the U.S.-China-Taiwan triangle. He then identified the next stage in the diplomatic process to determine how we can separate Taiwan from being stuck in this triangular relationship, with tensions on the rise and the PRC’s increased determination to bring Taiwan under control.

“We really need to think outside the box as the sense of a separate Taiwan identity has increased,” Bachman said. “We don’t want to be in the position where we break the relationship and have no arms sales.”

Reach reporter Kelsey Chuang Twitter: @chuang_kelsey

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