The global rivalry between the two world powers (the USA and the PRC) is multi-faceted in nature. But recently, it has manifested itself especially acutely and most noticeably in the sphere of bilateral trade.
The frenzy created by global media outlets about this subject within the context of the Sino–US relations is understandable, as the state of world economy will, to a great extent, depend on the direction the trade war between the United States and China will take.
Far less attention is focused on other spheres of the US–Chinese relationship, but equally dramatic developments are happening within them too. And these have the potential of having a profound effect on the nature of not onlythe bilateral ties but also on the situation world-wide.
Unquestionably, the “Taiwan issue”, whose various aspects have been discussed in the New Eastern Outlook on a fairly regular basis, can certainly become that influential. The last time we wrote about it was in the article describing the foreign tour, embarked on by the Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen, to a number of Pacific Ocean nations at the end of March of this year.
At the time, the upcoming anniversary on 10 April 2019, which marked 40 years since the United States adopted the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA-1979), was to signal yet another turn for the worse in the Sino–US relations. Both Washington and Taipei undoubtedly intended to use this date to stage some events, meant to illustrate the strength of the current bilateral relations between the two nations and their willingness to continue developing these ties. But it was still unclear what shape these events would take.
We would like to reiterate that TRA-1979 is not recognized by the PRC as an international Act. Instead China views it as a document for internal use in the USA that is not worth giving due consideration to. After all, for Beijing Taiwan’s status is not controversial. The island is an integral part of “one-China”, which means that any laws enacted by other nations in relation to Taiwan are not legally binding.
Notably, TRA-1979 was adopted three months after Washington had established diplomatic ties with the PRC (simultaneously severing such relations with Taiwan). At the time, the United States had to acknowledge the “one-China” policy and the fact that Chinese people live on either side of the Taiwan Strait. Still, for Washington TRA-1979 remains a vital document, which the United States uses to formulate its strategy on relations with Taiwan, and also, to a great extent, with China itself.
From a practical perspective, the Six Assurances, affirmed by the former US President Ronald Reagan in June 1982, play an equally important role. The aforementioned assurances substantially broadened the scope of TRA-1979 when it came to providing various forms of support to Taiwan, for example, by selling American weapons to the island nation.
The previously mentioned developments at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s were a direct consequence of the Cold War, an era when the United States needed to ally itself with the PRC in the battle against its key geopolitical rival, the USSR. In order to achieve this feat, the USA needed to make tactical sacrifices with respect to the “Taiwan issue”.
The author of this article has come across a number of noteworthy statements (i.e. alternative history theories), made by American experts. What all of these comments are essentially saying is that, if, at the end of the 1970s, the USA had known about the upcoming collapse of the USSR in 10 to 15 years’ time, it would have never chosen to sever diplomatic as well as military and political ties with Taiwan, which was and still is de facto one of most trusted allies of the United States in APAC (the Asia-Pacific).
We would like to reiterate that TRA-1979 does not exclude the possibility of maintaining “quasi-intergovernmental” ties between Taiwan and the United States, which speaks to the mastery of the authors of this document. The writers managed to reconcile seemingly incompatible original bargaining positions in one document, which allowed for necessary concessions to be made to the PRC with respect to its “One-China” policy and the “Taiwan issue”, and, which, at the same time, left enough room for Washington to maneuver between the “shores” of the Taiwan Strait.
In its complex game with Beijing, the United States has used TRA-1979 on more than one occasion, as for instance, during the so-called Third Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995-1996). The USA sent two carrier battle groups to the conflict zone under the guise that China was supposedly prepared to use military force. And, according to the aforementioned document, Beijing was required to avoid such measure at all costs.
The importance of TRA-1979 began to increase rapidly starting in the middle of the last decade, when the possibility that the PRC would transform into the second world power became a reality. Hence, something needed to be done. An attempt to “fit” China into the US-centric world within the Group of Two (G-2 or G2) concept, proposed by Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, by the start of Barrack Obama’s second presidential term failed.
China will become a geopolitical rival to the United States. But it is still unclear what shape the confrontation between the USA and the PRC will take. What is certain is that Washington has already mobilized all of its available resources as it continues its dealings with China (to ensure it is prepared for any possible scenario).
The “Taiwan issue”, which remains de facto under Washington’s thumb, is a very promising means of pressuring Beijing, and the USA has been taking advantage of this on the basis of the (quasi) legitimate document, TRA-1979. The 40-year anniversary that marked the date the Act was adopted was an appropriate occasion to stick the knife into China’s most painful political wound.
At first, the author believed that Washington would choose to apply light but firm pressure on Beijing since the future of the bilateral ties between the two nations does not seem completely hopeless at present. The main issue (in the sphere of trade and economics) is still seemingly on the negotiating table. The US President has not so subtly hinted that a one-and-a-half fold increase in tariffs on half the imports from China may not be permanent if negotiations with the PRC are successful.
Still, one month before the anniversary suggestions were made to stage something large-scale, as, for example, an international conference in Taipei to celebrate the 40-year birthday of TRA-1979. There was talk of the possibility that someone from the presidential administration would attend this event. Fortunately, one year earlier, the US Congress approved the so-called Taiwan Travel Act, which allows high level American and Taiwanese officials to make official visits to each other’s nations.
If such an event had been held in Taipei, on, to make matters worse, the territory of a newly constructed building complex, which de facto functions as the US embassy in Taiwan, with invitees including President Tsai Ing-wen and members of her administration, this would have surely resulted in fairly serious (and possibly irreversible) consequences for the Sino–US relations. And again we cannot say that this relationship is in crisis as yet. However, China continues to endure jabs in the form of, for example, regular (monthly) passages of American warships through the Taiwan Strait. Still, at the end of the day, these vessels remain in international waters and China has, seemingly, become accustomed to such developments.
The anniversary celebration did indeed take place but in Washington DC and not in Taipei. It was a notable event, organized by one of the leading American foreign policy think tanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that saw participation of no less reputable Brookings Institution and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Richard Armitage, one of the key architects of US foreign policy in APAC, was the moderator at this conference.
It is not easy to answer the question “Did officials from the United States and Taiwan take part in the conference?” It seems that only former members of the nations’ administrations were present, and they included Richard Armitage. However, for more than an hour participants of the plenary session had an opportunity to listen to no other than the current President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, who was seen on the screen in the conference room. She gave a fairly noteworthy 45-minute speech, and answered questions from conference attendees via a live video feed from Taipei.
This development has forced the author to re-evaluate the impact of the conference, which took place on 10 April of this year to mark the 40-year anniversary since TRA-1979 was adopted. The USA did not simply apply light but fairly heavy pressure on China’s biggest political wound.
This assessment is further supported by the fact that the bill entitled “H.R. 2002: Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019” almost unanimously passed in the House of Representatives on 8 of May of this year. In essence, this document includes all the key provisions of its predecessors, i.e. TRA-1979, the Six Assurances and the Taiwan Travel Act.
The following parts in the 2nd and 3rd sections of the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019 are indicative of the overall tone of this bill: “The security of Taiwan and its democracy are key elements of continued peace and stability of the greater Indo-Pacific region… Taiwan is a vital part of the United States Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy… the United States should conduct regular sales and transfers of defense articles to Taiwan in order to enhance its self-defense capabilities.”
Without a doubt, the Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019 will pass in the Senate and will be subsequently signed into law by President Donald Trump. And this step will become an important development in the process of erecting barriers between the two leading world powers not only in the sphere of economics but also that of politics.
Vladimir Terehov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region has written this article exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”