TAIPEI – Taiwan and the United States are celebrating four decades of their strong but unofficial ties bound by a law that guarantees Washington’s strategic and military assistance to help the island defend itself.
The Taiwan Relations Act passed by the US Congress came into effect from April 10, 1979. It was done to ensure Washington’s close but informal cooperation on a wide range of issues with the island after the US decided to establish diplomatic ties with China which claims Taiwan as part of its “One Country” policy.
In the last 40 years, the law has shaped up the ties between the two allies into a robust military and trade partnership.
The act sought to show that the US would not abandon Taiwan to its fate, maintain close unofficial diplomatic relations with the island and provide military assistance in the event of an attack by China.
Times have changed since the passage of the landmark law.
China is no longer a bargaining chip for the US in its attempts to isolate the Soviet Union. It is an economic and strategic competitor now. Taiwan too is not the stronghold of an authoritarian government, which had governed China for decades and fled to Taiwan after losing the civil war to the communists in 1949.
However, US-Taiwan relations “are stronger than ever,” Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu told EFE last week, calling the US the island’s “best ally.”
The US since 2016, after Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independent Progressive Democratic Party won presidential elections in Taiwan and Donald Trump in the US, has adopted several measures to reaffirm its support to Taiwan in the political and military realms.
Taipei has reciprocated by endorsing the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy as proposed by Trump.
The US government’s view that authoritarian countries like China and Russia pose a threat to democracy has been well received on the island amid an unprecedented pressure from China for unification.
“Taiwan is an important ally of the United States in the fight against autocratic governments,” former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs David Shear said during a recent visit to Taiwan.
Since the telephone call Tsai made to Trump in December 2016, which angered China, Washington has approved several pro-Taiwan laws including one that allows an increase in the sale of arms and strengthening of bilateral military ties.
The US also approved the Taiwan Travel Act which allows visits by senior Taiwanese and American officials.
Since 2018, the US has repeatedly expressed its opposition to some countries breaking ties with Taiwan after China poached several diplomatic allies of the island, including Burkina Faso, Dominican Republic and El Salvador.
Washington last year also promised to facilitate Taiwan’s entry into international organizations such as the World Health Organization and is currently negotiating the sale of tanks and F-16V fighter jets to the island in addition to upgrading its existing fleet of F-16A/B fighters.
The US has also sent military vessels on patrols to the Taiwan Strait almost every month since mid-2018 and stationed military personnel at its de facto embassy on the island – one of the largest in the world, at almost 14,934 square meters (160,748 square feet).
Taiwan, for its part, has joined the United States International Development Finance Corporation, a $60 billion fund that Washington intends to use to compete with the financial institutions China has set up to support loans and constructions linked to its Belt and Road Initiative, which has allowed it to invest globally in infrastructure and telecommunications.
The island has also intensified its criticism of China in the field of human rights and military activities, and backed the American policy in the Indo-Pacific region.
“US support has reached its zenith,” Shin Chuei-ling, professor of politics at the National Sun Yat-sen University in southern Taiwan, told EFE.
Shin feared that more assistance from the US “would spark off serious tensions with China.”
Strategic expert Alexander Huang, of Tamkang University, told EFE that Taipei would soon have to choose, especially in the upcoming elections, “between Chinese money and American security and democracy.”
Shin said that ties between Taiwan and the US would remain “solid” in case the island chooses a president of the Kuomintang Party
But Kuomintang Party would also seek to “improve ties with China and reduce tensions, something that the current government does not care about because it promotes its own goals of identity and sovereignty,” Shin added.
The current wave in favor of closer US-Taiwan relations may suffer a setback if the opposition KMT wins the 2020 elections as the party has traditionally advocated a balance between ties with China and the US.