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Crafting the Taiwan Relations Act | Commentary

For 35 years, the Taiwan Relations Act has provided a vehicle for peace in the Pacific and a means of maintaining a direct relationship with the more than 23 million Taiwanese people who are one of our most important allies and trading partners.

This year we enthusiastically celebrate the 35th anniversary of the passage of the TRA. I served as a principal author and floor manager of this landmark piece of legislation which was resoundingly passed by both chambers of the United States Congress and signed by President Jimmy Carter.

The crisis in 1978 as to how to handle recognition of the People’s Republic of China and de-recognition of a longtime ally, the Republic of China, brought with it challenges that demanded a unique solution.

Carter sent Congress something called the “Taiwan Enabling Act.” At the time, I was Chairman of the Asia Pacific subcommittee of the House and had a close working relationship with Senator Edward M. Kennedy. We were not satisfied with Carter’s version, which we felt too weak a statement to fulfill the need of the people of Taiwan who did not want to come under Communist domination. Together with Sen. Alan Cranston, we crafted together a resolution that was later incorporated into what became the “Taiwan Relations Act.”

The resolution we put together was originally opposed by the Carter administration for fear of ruffling China’s feathers. It took a great amount of political maneuvering to protect the interests of Taiwan’s people and not jeopardize the fragile relationship with China.

Carter’s announcement of formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China without consulting the Congress angered many members. Sen. Barry Goldwater gathered support from many senators for a lawsuit,

The Carter resolution lacked any security provisions for Taiwan, who had an existing mutual-defense treaty with the United States. I was authorized to immediately hold hearings preceding the mark-up of the bill by full Committee Chairman Clement Zablocki. Kennedy’s staff and mine were able to quickly draft a resolution that provided muscle into the Act.

The resolution was successful in obtaining co-sponsorship from more than 250 senators and representatives. It incorporated continued support for Taiwan’s people, sales of defense equipment and resistance by the United States to any blockade. The floor debate later reinforced continuing arms sales and underlined the condition that China could not have a role in the size or quality of the equipment.

Taiwan was and continues to be one of our most reliable allies. The security provisions of the TRA have provided strength to a climate of peace in the Pacific. The economic growth of Taiwan has provided a basis for increased trade with the United States; Taiwan now ranks as one of our leading trade partners.

However, there is still much to be done to bring into reality the legislative intent of the Taiwan Relations Act.

Taiwan is still unable to fully participate in most international organizations, a primary intent of Section 4(d) of the Taiwan Relations Act. The United States must continue efforts to overcome Taiwan’s exclusion.

Taiwan’s leadership, including their president, cannot visit our nation’s capital for consultations, making it difficult to resolve intricate issues. This is because of a self-imposed restriction on the part of the United States government. This must be remediated.

The legislative history of the Taiwan Relations Act specifically barred the third party intervention into determining the nature of defense equipment Taiwan could purchase. When the United States sells arms to Taiwan (as required per Section 3 of the Taiwan Relations Act), no other country’s opinions should be considered.

We currently do not have a free trade agreement with Taiwan. Section 2 of the Taiwan Relations Act requires that our two nations have a strong commercial relationship. A free trade agreement would strengthen the economic ties between the United States and Taiwan.

I heartily recommend that we continue to maintain a strong relationship with Taiwan and its democratically-elected leader, President Ma Ying-jeou. It deserves our support in fulfilling the intent of the Congressional drafters of the Taiwan Relations Act.

Lester Wolff is a former member of Congress from New York.

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