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The Taiwan Relations Act at 40: Retrospect and Prospect

May 21, 2019

In a roundtable conversation, the UW Taiwan Studies Program hosted Shirley Kan, Steve Li, and David Bachman on April 30, 2019 to discuss how forty years of the TRA have affected the US-Taiwan partnership. Topics of discussion included how the TRA has affected US arms sales to Taiwan, Taiwan’s self-defense and security cooperation policies, and cross-strait relations. Bringing a range of practitioner, policymaker, and academic perspectives, the panelists concluded with thoughts on the future changes and prospects of the TRA for Taiwan and the United States.

In 1979, the US Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). In the aftermath of establishing a diplomatic relationship with the People’s Republic of China instead of the Republic of China (ROC), Congress via the TRA provided the legal framework for the United States’ relationship with Taiwan. Since then, the TRA has shaped US defense, security, economic, and political commitments to Taiwan, engendering the “strategic ambiguity” that arguably maintains the delicate status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

The tone of the event was set by Kan as she firmly stated that the TRA was designed to safeguard Taiwan against the mainland’s One China Policy. “There’s a notion among people that somehow, in 1979 when the U.S. derecognized the ROC 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.”

Professor David Bachman then discussed the importance of Taiwan to US policy.  “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.,” Bachman said. “Democracy is the articulation of conflict of interest and shared interest, and I see it as a good thing.”


About the speakers:

Shirley Kan is an Independent Specialist in Asian Security Affairs, who retired from working for the U.S. Congress at the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) from 1990 to 2015. Ms. Kan has been an original Member of the Advisory Board of the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI), a think tank in Washington, DC, since its founding in 2016. She participates in conferences and is cited in the media as an independent specialist.

Lt. Colonel Steve Li is a US Air Force sponsored PhD student. He spent half of his 20-year career in the United States Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility serving as a special operation pilot and foreign area officer. As a foreign area officer, he was posted at the American Institute in Taiwan as a security cooperation specialist and supported the TRA’s intent by facilitating U.S. security assistance to Taiwan.

David Bachman is a Henry M. Jackson Professor of International Studies. He was chair of the China Studies Program from 1992-2003 and Associate Director of the Jackson School from 2000-2001 and 2003-2010. His research and teaching interests are Chinese Domestic and Foreign Policy, International Political Economy, Asian Politics, International Relations, and US-China Relations.