Taiwan, formally the Republic of China 中華民國, has few diplomatic allies around the world that recognize it as a sovereign nation. Especially after the People’s Republic of China 中華人民共和國 (hereafter “PRC”) was recognized as the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations in 1971 (UN Resolution 2758), almost all UN members chose to recognize the PRC in the following years. Among the major world powers, most of them established diplomatic relation with PRC before the 1980s (Soviet Union (1949); United Kingdom (1950); France (1964); Italy, Canada (1970); Japan, West Germany, Australia, New Zealand (1972); United States (1979); see Timeline of diplomatic relations of the Republic of China).
The cessation of diplomatic relation between ROC and the US was a particularly severe blow to Taiwan. United States first recognized ROC in 1913, and had went on to signed multiple bilateral treaties, some including financial aid to the ROC government during the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), other provided a legal basis for the US government to cooperate with the ROC government on defending Taiwan from communist expansion (Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty). As one of the most important supporters of the ROC on the international stage, the United States began seriously considering the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with PRC after Deng Xiaoping became the leader of PRC in 1978. President Richard Nixon had visited PRC earlier in 1972 and signed the Shanghai Communiqué 上海公報, which pledged the United States and PRC to work towards the normalization of their relations. The United States and the People’s Republic of China announced on December 15, 1978 that the two governments would establish diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979.
ROC-US relation ended on the same date, while American military completely withdrew from Taiwan on March 1 of the same year. The United States also terminated its Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan as of January 1, 1980. However, the ROC government mobilized its ethnic lobby in the US to agitate Congress for the swift passage of an American security guarantee for the island, which became the Taiwan Relations Act 臺灣關係法 (TRA), signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on April 10, 1979.
As in section 2 of TRA, the act is to 1) help maintain peace, security, and stability in the Western Pacific; and 2) to promote the foreign policy of the United States by authorizing the continuation of commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people on Taiwan. In short, it authorizes the US government to maintain de facto diplomatic relations with the government Taiwan, while establishing the American Institute in Taiwan 美國在台協會 (AIT) to serve and represent its interest. AIT is essentially the American embassy in Taiwan, just without the actual title. It has the authority to issue visa and provide assistance to American citizens in Taiwan.
A more controversial section of TRA, at least to the PRC, is that it requires the US government “to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character”, and “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” This does not explicitly suggests that the US will intervene militarily if the PRC attacks or invades Taiwan, and the US has neither confirmed nor denied it would intervene if such an invasion is to happen. PRC has considered TRA as American intrusion in the internal affairs of China.
For more than 30 years, TRA has been the legal basis any interactions between Taiwan and the United States. However, a new bill has been introduced in the US House of Representatives “to strengthen and clarify the commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan, as codified in the Taiwan Relations Act, and for other purposes,” also known as the Taiwan Policy Act of 2013 台灣政策法. The act would require the US government to provide further defensive articles and services to Taiwan, promote cabinet-level visits between Taiwan and the US, and for the US to support and ensure meaningful participation for Taiwan in relevant United Nations Entities and international organizations. This is in addition to another bill introduced by US Representative Ed Royce, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, “to direct the Secretary of State to develop a strategy to obtain observer status for Taiwan at the triennial International Civil Aviation Organization Assembly, and for other purposes.” (9/13/2013 Update: Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration Director-General was invited by the ICAO Council President Roberto Kobeh Gonzalez to lead a delegation to attend the triennial ICAO Assembly on September 24 – October 4 in Montreal, Canada as “invited guests” (not observers) of the ICAO Council President, using the title “Chinese Taipei”.)
The Royce legislation was signed into law by President Barack Obama on July 12, 2013. The Taiwan Policy Act of 2013 was passed, or reported, by the US House Foreign Affairs Committee on August 1, 2013, and will be debated and voted on the House floors. If it passes in the US House of Representatives, it will be referred to the US Senate for another vote before heading to the President’s desk to be signed into law.