Taiwan Relations Act:
A Historical Perspective from a Taiwanese-American
By Neng-Hsiang Wang, a resident of Washington, DC since 1972
Article completed, August 22, 2017
To the people on the island of Taiwan, which used to be known as “Formosa”, my mother country, the year of 1978 is the darkest year in modern time. In December of that year, President Jimmy Carter single-handedly severed diplomatic relations with Chiang Ching Kuo’s ROC regime. Before that event occurred, the symbol of American presence since December 1954—Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG)–has dwindled to almost zero personnel. During that time Shanghai Communique has dominated quite some time the China Hands among Washington’s Thinktank circles, also those in State Department and in White House. U.S.-Republic of China Mutual Defense Treaty, which had offered security, stability, and economic growth for Taiwan for over two decades, is removed. One after another, diplomatic posts of Taipei, symbolizing ROC’s ubiquitous presence in the world, were quietly deserted, and some of which were forced to close. Taiwan has become an international orphan, in name and in fact.
Refusing to let Taiwan sink and swiftly go oblivion as Chiang Kai-shek regime’s expulsion by the United Nations (October 25, 1971), I deliberately chose to establish a home in Washington, DC (September 1972) so that I can help promote the cause of Taiwan by lobbying Congress and State Department. Slow but steady, I promoted the cause of Taiwan, including successfully urging House of Representatives to conduct a “Hearing on Human Rights in Taiwan” four years after I established residency in Washington, DC (May 1977). The outcome of the hearing was a great excitement to the Taiwanese Community in America. It was also a great encouragement inside the island’s progressive force called Tangwai (Outside Chinese Nationalist) Movement.
Within one year and a half, pessimism solidly overshadowed the excitement and encouragement throughout the Taiwanese Community in Taiwan and abroad. A man of optimism, I became a pessimist. I did not know how to untie the most difficult Taiwan-US knot created by the severing of Taiwan relations by President Carter. I visited Congressman Jim Leach, a determined friend of Taiwan whom I befriended with in 1977. He was so optimistic that he immediately offered whatever assistance I might ask, a feeling I dared not to share. I thought over and over the way of untying that knot, day and night.
Almost every single day, I went to Library of Congress, which is only two miles’ distance from my home, to search for any light I might grasp. I found one: An interview article in U.S. News & World Report Magazine, narrating with strong feeling of sympathy for the agony of Taiwan. The narrator of the agony was Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island. I wasted no time going to a bookstore to buy a copy of that magazine. With the copy in hand, I went directly to Senator Pell’s office. Having introduced myself, I told him of the purpose of the visit. He was delighted in knowing my background, and asked me if he could help. I told him to conduct a hearing similar in format to above-mentioned 1977 hearing on Human Rights in Taiwan. He said it could be done. In February 1979, two hearings on the same theme were conducted simultaneously by the Senate and the House. The result was the enactment of Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in April, taking effect retroactive January 1, 1979.
Without a doubt, TRA is now the backbone of Taiwan’s security, stability, and economic growth. It lays out Washington’s determination to offer Taiwan self-defense need, unilateral trade commitment, and immigration quota on par with any state that the United States recognizes (approving 20,000 immigration applicants a year), and, through face-to-face contact with the people from Taiwan, exercise de facto diplomatic relations, including establishment of American Institute in Taiwan. To do so, Washington claims to have the right and duty to oversee Taiwan Governing Authority’s performance in human rights and democratic agenda. How wonderful it is!
Like US-Republic of China Defense Treaty of 1954, TRA is to provide effective legal framework to offer security, stability and economic growth for Taiwan. TRA is even a better legal framework for the following additional features:
(1) TRA is a domestic act of the United States; it is not an international treaty. As such, when perceived by the United States as “Clear and Present Danger” threatening Taiwan’s security, the United States armed forces can rush to Taiwan to rescue without waiting for time-consuming official request by Taiwan Governing Authority.
(2) It claims to oversee Taiwan’s performance in human rights and progress in democratic agenda, which certainly would take Taiwan closer and closer to U.S.-style value system and civilization.
(3) When it comes to immigration issue, the United States offers Taiwan a status equal to China, contributing likely to early integration of Taiwan into the United States, if so desires.
From the spirit of TRA, one finds that TRA unambiguously promotes the legitimate agenda of U.S. national interest and the interest of the people in Taiwan. On top of that, it deeply ushers in the ideals of American values such as democracy and human rights. I do not know how many lawmakers in Congress took and shared collective leadership in shedding and incorporating those great American values. The credit of the enactment of TRA should be generously given to two great friends of Taiwan—Senator Claiborne Pell, who earned the title of “Father of Taiwan Relations Act from Senate side”, and Congressman Jim Leach, who not only earned the title of “Father of Taiwan Relations Act from House side”, but also “Congressman from Taiwan District”–I cannot but express my deepest respect, gratitude, and admiration for both genuine Taiwanese friends’ input and lasting contribution. It is primarily for this reason, I humbly write this article in hope that Senator Claiborne Pell and Congressmen Jim Leach’s contribution and input to Taiwan Relations Act as we know today can be eternally remembered by the people in Taiwan and abroad.
From left to right: Mr. Neng-Hsiang Wang, Sen. Christopher Dodd, Former House Speaker Jim Wright, Sen. Claiborne Pell, and President Bill Clinton; At the White House; Circa 1993; By courtesy of Mr. Wang