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Learning the China code

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President Jimmy Carter recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1978 while Congress was out on Christmas vacation. The action meant withdrawing formal recognition of the government of Taiwan and dumping our defense treaty with them.

Just two months earlier, Congress had passed an amendment declaring that the White House should consult with it before making any change in U.S.-Taiwan relations. Instead, Carter waited until it was gone, then acted.

Congress struck back, passing the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. It authorized what amounts to de facto diplomatic relations with Taiwan and commits the U.S. to helping defend the island nation.  Part of that help included providing “arms of defensive character ... solely based” on Taiwan’s defense needs.
Over the years, Carter and other Oval Office occupants — including the present president — have played fast and loose with interpretations of the legislation. And Beijing has learned to play the game well. It barks increasingly louder about increasingly modest U.S.-Taiwan cooperative defense initiatives.
Going ballistic over the prospect of U.S. fighter sales to Taiwan is standard. But now they even go bananas when Taiwan request parts to upgrade fighters they already have. Next, Beijing will go bonkers if Taipei tries to buy paint for the fighters. Don’t laugh.  Even the most routine transactions have become troublesome of late.

The irony is that relations between Beijing and Taipei have improved most when the U.S. has showed its strongest support for economic, diplomatic and military cooperation with Taiwan. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama doesn’t seem to have “broken the code” on negotiating with Beijing.

As Obama entered the White House, former Reagan national security advisor Richard Allen penned some great advice in The Wall Street Journal. “Continue to work to improve relations with [China], while solidifying [the] historic relationship with Taiwan,” Reagan’s China expert wrote.

“The window of opportunity is within the next months and year,” he added, urging the administration to proceed with a pending arms sale and to start free-trade discussions with Taiwan.

Obama did make good on the second half of Bush’s almost 10-year-old arms package, but he has left everything else on the table.  

Still, it is never too late. And now is a great time to throw some steroids into the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. Taiwan’s economy is healthy. Its direct investments in mainland China are growing. It and the U.S. rank among the top 25 countries in terms of economic freedom.

Congress can help jump-start the relationship by pressing the Obama administration on how it is fulfilling its obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act. The act requires the U.S. to have the capacity to resist the use of force by China against Taiwan.

Lawmakers could demand a closed-door briefing by the Pentagon on the plan for resistance. They could also press for resumption of annual U.S-Taiwan arms cooperation talks. The Obama administration could show some initiative as well. For starters, it could deliver on the F-16C/Ds and fighter upgrades already requested by Taiwan.

And Obama could grant Visa Waiver Status to Taiwan. That seems a tiny step, but it  would be a long stride toward promoting commerce and travel between the two democracies. Rather than walk away from a fellow democracy, Obama could build a partnership with Taiwan, helping promote peace, security and economic prosperity in the U.S. and Asia.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.