Nearly 35 years ago next month, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, an act that has defined U.S. relationships with the small island country ever since. On this historic anniversary, the United States may be tempted to rejoice in the act’s success in providing the diplomatic flexibility to maintain relations with both China and Taiwan. However, rather than a celebration, troubling events on the island this past week require the United States to do a little soul searching to review its interest and commitment to the island and the region.
Since last week, in the biggest student-led protest in Taiwan’s history, around 10,000 demonstrators have surrounded government buildings, with hundreds occupying the parliament in Taipei. Clashes escalated between the police and protestors who stormed the Cabinet offices, resulting in at least 60 arrests and 150 injuries, with photos of bleeding students forcibly removed by riot police with tear gas, water cannons and wooden clubs going viral on social media platforms.
These demonstrators are pushing for further review of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which will open significant service industries to investment from China. Although the government insists that the deal is an economic imperative for the island to reinvigorate its sluggish economy, protesters claim that the Kuomintang party sidestepped the legislative process and deserted its previous promise of itemized review.
At first glance, the protest in Taiwan is a familiar scene: When a country negotiates a free trade agreement, concerns of foreign competition and potential job loss spark resistance. However, what puts CCSTA in a different context is Taiwan’s unresolved relationship with China, which has long considered the island a renegade province.
There is also a larger concern that the trade pact is a step too close to China. More fundamentally, some fear that further economic dependence means more political dependence, as China does not disguise its intention to use economic measures to promote political unification.
Public opinion in Taiwan has grown increasingly against reunification despite closer trade ties. Diplomatic isolation and frustration over being shunned from participation in international organizations, caused by pressures from China, have partially contributed to this shift in attitude. But most importantly, having experienced the period of martial law, political suppression and a lack of press freedom, people cherish the island’s hard-fought democracy and are not ready to surrender it to the authoritarian rule of China.
Taiwan needs the attention of the United States now more than ever. How the United States treats Taiwan is an important indicator of what other countries in the region can expect from Washington as China stretches its power. If the United States compromises with China in the Taiwan Strait, could it also compromise on issues important to other allies in the region?
The treatment of Taiwan is equally critical to America’s credibility to uphold its core foreign policy values: democracy, freedom and market economics. Taiwan’s democratic transition validates U.S. efforts to encourage democratization. The perseverance of Taiwan’s sovereignty is especially important because of its proximity to vulnerable democracies: Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore are likely keeping an eye on Taiwan.
The Western media have already drawn similarities between situations in Taiwan and Ukraine, both small countries facing threats from a powerful neighbor to recover its territory. Some worry that Taiwan could be the next Crimea and that the United States would take no meaningful actions besides imposing hollow sanctions as it did to Russia.
Although an armed conflict seems unlikely, as the protest in Taiwan coincides with the 35th anniversary of the TRA, it is important to note that contrary to popular belief, the TRA does not mandate the United States to come to Taiwan’s assistance under an attack. However, as circumstances have evolved in past decades, commitments must also realign to reflect changing political context and renewed interests.
The enemy of any diplomatic partnership is complacency. While the United States might mourn that the quiet days across the Taiwan Strait are over, it should use this opportunity to review the TRA and reaffirm its security and political commitments to Taiwan, as its policy toward Taiwan will indicate its willingness to honor its democratic values and other obligations around the world.
ANNIE CHEN is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. She has interned with the Institute of National Policy Research in Taipei, Taiwan.