Thirty-five years after President Jimmy Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act obligating the U.S. to give the island the means to defend itself against an attack by China, ties today between Washington and Taipei are at an all-time high.
While uncertainties remain on several fronts — including whether Taiwan will be included in the Obama administration’s push for an Asia-Pacific free trade pact — U.S. and Taiwanese officials are quick to note how the island has long been a pro-democracy partner to Washington just off the shores of communist China.
The past three decades have seen Taiwan, a nation of 23 million people, emerge as the U.S.’ 12th-largest trading partner and a key ally on humanitarian efforts in the region. But it also has served, at times, as a linchpin to U.S. strategic posturing toward China.
Taiwan has purchases billions in military equipment from the U.S. since 1979, with $12 billion in sales during the Obama presidency alone.
And all of it grew from the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou on Wednesday described as a “landmark piece of legislation.”
“Taiwan and U.S. are determined to maintain peace and stability in East Asia and we are working together to do so,” Mr. Ma told a meeting of the Center for Strategic and International Studies via videoconference. “If actions speak louder than words, then the U.S. has certainly spoken loudly and forcefully in support of our century-long partnership.”
The sentiment is echoing in Washington. “The Taiwan Relations Act really exemplifies, to quote one of my heroes, former President Reagan, the concept of ‘peace through strength,’” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican, told Mr. Ma during Wednesday’s meeting.
The TRA emerged from the need for the U.S. to protect its interests in Taiwan after Mr. Carter terminated diplomatic relations and a mutual defense treaty with the Southeast Asian island. Congress drafted the act, which provides the legal basis for the unofficial U.S.-Taiwan relationship and commits the U.S. to assist Taiwan in maintaining its defenses.
While the relationship has grown stronger, recent years have brought twist. As nearby China has grown into the region’s most powerful economic force, the Ma government has engaged in an unprecedented effort to mend ties with Beijing.
Taipei has signed 21 agreements with Beijing on a range of issues, including trade, transportation and health affairs. In February, officials from the two sides engaged in their first formal meeting since Taiwan split from China in 1949.
Mr. Ma has since floated the idea of meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing in November.
Not all Taiwanese share their government’s enthusiasm for closer ties to China: A service trade pact has sparked protests in Taiwan and been opposed by lawmakers.
“Taiwan should not put all of its economic eggs into the mainland’s basket,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “And as the recent protests in Taipei suggest, younger Taiwanese generally do not want to be absorbed into the mainland’s economic system.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Ma says the U.S.-Taiwan relationship could get a boost from deeper economic cooperation. In his remarks Wednesday, he made an impassioned plea to the Obama administration to include Taiwan in Washington’s push for a trade pact with a 11 other nations around the Pacific region.
Mr. Ma said Taiwan’s inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) not only would assure a future of Taiwanese economic security, but also would help strengthen the U.S.’ economic presence in the region for years to come.
“The sky is the limit,” he said.
What remains to be seen is whether the Obama administration agrees. While the U.S. has welcomed the warming ties between Taipei and Beijing, it has been less forthcoming on whether Taiwan can be a part of the TPP, which currently includes the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.
TTP membership is open to countries that can demonstrate a readiness to take on its commitments and win consensus support of the current members for joining, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday.
“Right now, the 12 TPP members are focused on concluding the negotiations to create the TPP,” she said. “In the near term, the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement provides and opportunity for Taiwan to resolve existing U.S. trade and investment concerns, demonstrate its preparations to take on new trade commitments and set itself on a path of new liberalization of its economic regime.”