Taiwan Relations Act
After the U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act to maintain a robust unofficial relationship with the island.
After President Jimmy Carter severed formal relations with Taiwan and established official diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979, many Taiwanese felt betrayed by the American government. As a response, Congress overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) just a few months later, effectively allowing the United States to treat Taiwan as a separate entity from mainland China, albeit unofficially. Notably, the Act also requires the U.S. to provide Taiwan with the capabilities to defend itself. Under this agreement, the United States regularly provides arms sales to the island.
Since Congress passed the TRA, U.S.-Taiwan relations have deepened, particularly as the island has democratized. In 2018, Congress passed the Taiwan Travel Act without any opposition, updating the TRA by loosening some of its restrictions on high-level meetings between American officials and their Taiwanese counterparts. China has openly opposed both laws, considering them violations of Chinese sovereignty.
Many foreign policy experts note the delicate balancing act between the TRA and the “One China” policy — U.S. recognition of the PRC as “the sole legal government of China.” While the United States abides by the policy, it does not recognize Chinese claims of sovereignty over Taiwan. Instead, it only acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China. While this difference may seem to have little meaning, this wording has served as the basis of the United States’ stance on the issue of Taiwan for decades, allowing it to adopt seemingly conflicting positions. The U.S. objects to any violent attempts to change the status quo — the existing state of affairs — and advocates for a peaceful resolution to the dispute.
Although China has always maintained that Taiwan must reunite with the mainland at some point, the PRC has exerted increasing military and political pressure on the island, especially under Chinese President Xi Jinping. With growing frequency, the Chinese Air Force launches incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), a security buffer zone that extends beyond the island’s airspace. In 2021, Xi vowed to achieve “peaceful reunification,” yet Beijing has not ruled out using force to accomplish its goal. Taiwan, however, has repeatedly insisted that only its people should decide their future and pledged to defend itself.
While the TRA mandates that the United States provide Taiwan with defense capabilities, the U.S. currently has no official position on if it would get militarily involved if China attempted to invade Taiwan — a policy known as “strategic ambiguity.” Adopted after the U.S. established formal diplomatic ties with the PRC, American officials aim to simultaneously discourage a Chinese invasion through the threat of potential U.S. military involvement while also dissuading Taiwan from taking provocative steps like formally declaring independence. These policies, combined with the Three Communiqués and Six Assurances, represent the cornerstone of the American position on the issue of Taiwan.