Jerome A. Cohen on the Taiwan Relations Act

Feb 20, 2019

U.S.-Taiwan relations have long been an ingenious balancing act of "strategic ambiguity." What does the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act entail and why is it important, not only to Taiwan, but to U.S.-China relations and indeed security across Asia? Legendary China expert Jerome Cohen unpacks the history of Taiwan since 1895, its current situation and legal status, and what this could mean for Asia and the United States.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I am speaking with Jerome Cohen. He's a professor at NYU here in New York City, and he's also a legend in the field of Asia studies and specifically China studies.

Jerry, it's a real honor to have you here at Carnegie Council. Thank you.

JEROME COHEN: Thank you, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: Today we're speaking about the Taiwan Relations Act, which was signed into law in the United States on April 10, 1979, and we're coming up to the 40th anniversary of the TRA, as it's also known.

Before we get into speaking about the TRA, you've had quite a background in Asia and in China and Taiwan. Can you tell us a little bit about your own personal connection with Taiwan?

JEROME COHEN: Well, my wife and I first visited Taiwan in June of 1961. It was a very drab place. We were on our way to Hong Kong. I was supposed to give a talk at the 50th anniversary of Hong Kong University. We had never been in Asia before. We had only been studying about China and Chinese for a year.

We were wide-eyed and interested, but Taiwan was a disappointing place. It had not recovered from World War II. Following Japan's surrender of the island, the Chiang Kai-shek occupation had only brought tragedy and difficulty. It was rundown and dilapidated. But the people were not, and we met wonderful people, many Mainlanders, intellectuals, law professors, lawyers, and judges who had come over with Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, but also many Taiwanese who were rising stars, some in business, some in intellectual life, but still very much discriminated against by the then-dominant Mainland minority.

We were impressed by the hospitality and cordiality, but at the end of a week we began to see that there was a method to the madness of the people we liked so much there. They all wanted to get out, and they all wanted to take us to the airport. They wanted a last-minute meeting: "Can you get me a fellowship? Can you get me a job? Can I have a visiting professorship?" It seemed a very poor future was in store for them in a highly repressed totalitarian dictatorship.

DEVIN STEWART: You had a personal relationship with at least one president of Taiwan.

JEROME COHEN: Later on, after leaving Berkeley, where I started teaching and learning about China, in 1964, after a year in Hong Kong we moved to Harvard, and at Harvard I had many wonderful students from Taiwan. It was too early for Mainland students to get there because they had no chance to leave, and we wouldn't let Chinese from the mainland into the country at that time.

But the people in Taiwan wanted to come to Harvard and were able to. Among them in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a man named Ma Ying-jeou, and he was a brilliant student from a Mainland Kuomintang Nationalist Party (KMT) family, very bright and interested in public international law, especially law of the sea. I was on his thesis committee and was head of the graduate committee that admitted him. His able wife was my research assistant, studying human rights in Taiwan, which was by then a serious problem, of course.

I also had other people associated with the Nationalist Party as my students, but people often don't realize or forget that I was also a mentor to a leading opposition party politician, the first woman to be at that level in Taiwan, Lü Hsiu-lien, Annette Lu. She served in the preceding administration to Ma's, from 2000 to 2008, as vice president. She had hoped to become Taiwan's first woman president, but she was a very independent spirit—still is, fortunately—and did not get the nomination to run for the presidency.

Of course, many of my other students in Taiwan have also been outstanding. One of the most moving moments for me was at President Ma's first inauguration in 2008 when he was administered the oath by the chief justice of Taiwan, who was also my student at Harvard Law School. To see these two talented people together at that important juncture was, as the Chinese say, fēicháng găndòngde, very moving.

DEVIN STEWART: How would you like to have perceived your impact on Taiwan's development over the past few decades personally?

JEROME COHEN: I would like to think that I've helped get some very good people out of jail. Repression was very prominent in Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s, and we had some exciting times trying to visit people who were under house arrest, like Peng Ming-min, who ran for the presidency some years later as the candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the opposition that was gradually allowed to develop to Chiang Kai-shek's KMT Party.

I like, of course, to think that some of my students have taken a prominent role in improving the legal system. When I first visited Taiwan several times in the early 1960s, corruption was a huge problem. The courts were completely under the thumb of the Chiang Kai-shek dictatorship and that of his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who was then head of the secret police. I was told half-jokingly by lawyers that an honest judge only kept the money that the winner gave him and returned the losing party's bribe.

That was a sad situation, but it was impressive to see how, beginning in the mid-1980s, Taiwan gradually developed a legitimate democratic system with the rule of law increasingly developing, with honesty becoming every day more prominent, with democracy gradually evolving, and very little violence at that time, although there had been huge violence in the repression of the late 1940s and 1950s.

This was an exciting time to see judges and prosecutors declare their independence of the ruling party. Although Taiwan has a distinctive history, most of its people are still regarded rightly as essentially Chinese in ethnicity, history, culture, values, and language. This demonstrates that Chinese people are fully capable of becoming members of a democratic society. Taiwan now is among the leading democratic jurisdictions in the world.

Yet many of its people don't even recognize how advanced they are. They still have a slightly secondary mentality. When I note that, although their government has now adopted many of the major international human rights treaties, it has yet to adopt certain others, such as the treaty against torture, some government officials say, "Well, we are not yet an advanced country," and I respond, "You are now an advanced country, and you should act like it." That's what's going on internally in Taiwan, and they're managing to make this progress under the enormous pressure of the Mainland, which in the last few years has become ever more intense.

So it's a huge challenge. I think being the president of Taiwan is certainly one of the hardest jobs in the world. You have an elite audience, newspapers, media, and television. People are so informed, they are so critical, and they, like the United States at present, are quite divided.

They're less divided on issues relating to Taiwan independence. Not over 20 percent of the people might want to take a chance, despite Mainland threats, and declare formal independence of China. Most people would not. Maybe 10-15 percent would someday like reunification with the Mainland. They still see themselves as Chinese Mainlanders, although further generational change should reduce this number..

Most of the people now see themselves as Taiwanese. They share many cultural aspects with the Mainland, the way we share many cultural, linguistic, and other aspects with England, the United Kingdom (UK). But we don't want to be reunified with England, and most people in Taiwan don't want to be reunified or integrated with the Mainland, and few want to take a chance by declaring formal independence, because nobody wants war.

So the challenge is: How do we help Taiwan maintain its de facto independence without declaring formal independence, without changing the name of the Republic of China to the Republic of Taiwan? That could well initiate a war, economic coercion, or even a blockade.

The Mainland could mobilize a variety of pressures short of all-out war, and it also maintains a huge number of missiles. One of the great challenges we Americans confront in our relations with Taiwan and the Mainland is: Can we adequately keep Taiwan armed so it can defend itself? It can't defend itself forever, but it has to be able to defend itself long enough for the United States to come to its aid, and it's far from clear—at this point it's one of the great questions we confront—whether the United States will come to its aid.

Yesterday in Washington, February 7, I was glad to see that Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver absolutely claimed that the United States under the Taiwan Relations Act will come to the aid of Taiwan if Taiwan is the victim of "unprovoked" aggression. The question might be: Did Taiwan provoke the aggression in some way?

These are complex questions, and one question is: Is it even an international matter? The Taiwan Relations Act made very clear the security of Taiwan is not a matter exclusively internal to China.

Yet the people in Beijing say: "You have no business here. Taiwan is a province of China. Don't bother us. It's our problem. You interfered by putting your fleet in the Taiwan Strait in 1950, preventing the Maoist forces from completing their control of China after they won the Chinese Revolution against Chiang Kai-shek, and now you're trying to say this is an international problem."

But of course it is an international problem, even though from Beijing's point of view they have a serious claim that Taiwan is part of China. This raises one of the fundamental questions of international law we will confront: What is the legal status of Taiwan? Should it today be deemed part of China because it once was part of China prior to China's cession of the island to Japan in 1895? Or should it now, in the light of developments since 1950—70 years roughly—demonstrating that Taiwan is no longer the Leninist-type dictatorship that Chiang Kai-shek had made it, be seen as a different polity? Taiwan is currently a flourishing democratic society of 23 million people who believe in and practice human rights. Is this the same Taiwan that existed in 1950? Does international law acknowledge, encourage and protect this kind of change?

This is a fascinating and hugely important question, and there are technical legal aspects also to be considered. Taiwan was never formally, legally re-integrated with China after World War II. The post-war peace treaties never said Taiwan had been returned to China. What they said was that Japan surrendered all right to Taiwan, which it had acquired in 1895 and lost at the end of World War II in 1945. This was carefully documented so that Japan surrendered Taiwan, but it never said to whom.

In practice, the Allied forces put Chiang Kai-shek's army in control of Taiwan in October 1945, but there was never a formal acknowledgment by all the parties settling the issue. That's why this is such a live question, and it will become extremely contentious once again if relations across the Strait between Taiwan and the Mainland continue to go downhill.

DEVIN STEWART: You've given us a lot of the historical background to the Taiwan Relations Act. What are the legal provisions in the TRA? Are there obligations on the part of the United States?

JEROME COHEN: The TRA is a very special document. It is a model of legal ingenuity spurred by political necessity.

Jimmy Carter inherited Nixon's challenge, which was to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. Nixon took the first step in February 1972 with his famous trip to Beijing, where he, Henry Kissinger, and China's leaders concluded the Shanghai Communiqué. It gave some ambiguous assurance to China about Taiwan. The U.S. government "acknowledged" the PRC's claim to the island and stated that it "does not challenge" that claim, but the United States never made clear what this meant, and we never subsequently clarified our formal position.

But what we said in the Shanghai Communiqué was enough at that time, given the fact that Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai and Nixon and Kissinger wanted to get together to balance the power of the rising Soviet Union. But that was early 1972, and it took until December 15, 1978, for formal diplomatic relations to be agreed on.

But even then the two sides couldn't deal with all the issues. The United States, then under Jimmy Carter, nevertheless decided to bite the bullet that Nixon had temporarily avoided and establish formal relations with the Mainland, breaking formal relations with the KMT government on Taiwan. This was a terrific blow to the KMT government and a great concern to everyone on Taiwan. It was also a daring step in American politics, given the support that the late Chiang Kai-shek's government still enjoyed within America's Republican Party and the understandable worries that many in the U.S. had for Taiwan's future. Nixon, of course, had been a Republican president and a notorious anti-communist, which gave him the domestic political freedom to make the first move toward recognizing China that no Democratic Party president could have politically survived in 1972. Carter, a more insecure Democratic president, had the tougher task of completing the job.

But it left open the status of Taiwan, and the U.S. insisted, as part of the deal that we would continue to have non-official, non-diplomatic, but cultural and economic ties with Taiwan, and the question was how to do it.

Many people in the Congress were very uneasy about Taiwan's future. I was in Taiwan in 1978 at several points. I understood the terrific anxiety of the people there about what was to come. They needed further assurance because it wasn't clear. Many people thought that the establishment of diplomatic relations with China would merely be a first step that would soon lead to the collapse of the Republic of China on Taiwan, the way the withdrawal of American troops in 1973 soon led to the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. The problem was how to prevent that, and the Congress, in imaginative negotiations that took several months with the executive branch including the State Department and others, came up with a law.

Now the law, the Taiwan Relations Act, is not an international agreement. It's merely the unilateral act of one government saying to the other, "This is our interpretation of the situation." It had two functions, mainly. One, to warn Beijing that any non-peaceful attempt to solve the problem by taking over Taiwan would be regarded by the United States as a grave threat to security in the Western Pacific. That is, in diplomatic language, it could lead to military opposition by the United States.

It had a second major function, which was: How do you continue to give the Republic of China on Taiwan the continuing necessary legal status in the United States that it had enjoyed when we had diplomatic relations with it? We had to find some substitute way so that, for example, if somebody from the Republic of China wanted to come into our courts, they could come in just the way they used to, and if somebody wanted to sue Taiwan officials or people, they would not be barred by any obstacle. We wanted to try to give Taiwan all the continuing privileges and benefits that the Republic of China enjoyed while we still maintained diplomatic relations with it even though we had severed formal relations with it.

But the key was really the first function because, when we gave up our diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it affected the 1954 mutual defense treaty between Taiwan and the United States. The abrogation of diplomatic relations meant an end to the defense treaty.

We did it with China's agreement in an orderly way. The defense treaty had a provision like many treaties: If you wanted to give it up, you could give one year's notice that you were going to give up your relationship under the treaty, and that's what we did.

But what would substitute for the defense treaty? And that's where the Taiwan Relations Act came in, to provide comfort. Technically, of course, it wasn't a treaty but only a law, and the language is very vague. It's even vaguer than the NATO agreement. In effect, it says to Beijing, "If you take non-peaceful steps, we will consider this a very grave threat to our security." It doesn't say, "And we will come to the defense of Taiwan." But it leaves open that we have this discretion. The NATO agreement also has this kind of vague language, but people understand the context, and over time that takes on added weight.

So the Taiwan Relations Act, 40 years later, is regarded as very important.

But the question Beijing has had right from the day we formally established relations with Beijing has been: How long would our new relationship with Taiwan go on, especially concerning the unresolved question of arms sales? How long would the United States be allowed to help provide arms to a government it no longer recognized, with which it no longer had diplomatic relations?

The U.S. had recognized the People's Republic of China on the Mainland as the only legal government of China. How did we justify continuing to provide arms to a regime that no longer was in our eyes the legal government of China and that was condemned by the newly recognized legal government of China? That is what we have had continuing tension over in negotiations and discussion with Beijing since 1979. We still have not solved that problem.

Yesterday we heard from Assistant Secretary of Defense Schriver once again that the U.S. will be sure to continue to provide Taiwan with all the arms necessary to defend itself. To defend itself, not to to attack the Mainland. Taiwan had to give up that idea. Chiang Kai-shek used to think he would renew the civil war with the communists and retake the Mainland. That was always unrealistic, and the 1979 U.S. commitment has made clear that arms sales to Taiwan were solely for defensive purposes.

So here we are. In the 1980s, Beijing thought the arms sale problem would be settled rather quickly. There was the famous Reagan agreement, the so-called "Third Communiqué" with the Chinese, where Reagan assured them that, as tension relaxed and things improved in China and across the Strait, we would gradually reduce our arms to Taiwan, but it hasn't happened.

Rather, the formula that has prevailed is not the one we have given to Beijing after negotiations on several occasions, but the Taiwan Relations Act formula, which has persisted for 40 years. That is, we are obligated to continue to provide such weapons as are necessary and in such quantities as are necessary for the defense of Taiwan. For Beijing, this is more than a thorn in its side.

It's a very practical question because on both sides of the Strait you have military units that are constantly considering, if force had to be used, what would happen? Would there be a three-day war? Would it be a long, drawn-out kind of contest? Would the United States come in? Would Japan come in?

What damage would be done to China? Could such a war rock the leadership of the Communist Party of China out of power if they couldn't subdue Taiwan? Would war decimate not only the people on Taiwan, but also the people in Shanghai and other Mainland places? There are so many issues.

Many people think war will never happen but that other means will be used. Many people think Beijing's recent multiplication of pressures against Taiwan—military, political, economic, and psychological—will gradually erode the will of the people there. Some people will leave Taiwan. You already have well over a million Taiwanese living and working in the Mainland. Some observers think more people will go to the Mainland, the Mainland will use continuing and greater economic incentives to seduce the people in Taiwan, and that their will to resist will be sapped.

We don't know. I don't think it will, judging from the evidence we now have, but a lot depends on what the leaders in the United States say, and how does Taiwan behave in cross-Strait relations.

I'm proud to say that my former student, President Ma—I don't agree with everything he's done, but he's a very brilliant man—did something very impressive. He managed to make over 20 agreements with the Mainland despite the fact that the Mainland's position has long been: "We will never treat Taiwan on an equal basis. We are the central government of China in Beijing. Those people down there are merely one of our provinces. We will never negotiate with them on an equal basis. There's no possibility of there being 'two Chinas', two Chinese governments."

Despite that long PRC tradition, how did Ma do it? What he managed to do was get the Chinese to join Taiwan in making use of the supposedly "unofficial" organizations each side had established. So these weren't agreements between the government in Beijing and the government in Taiwan; these were agreements between semi-official organizations at most, what you might call "white glove" organizations; they really were the governments, but they didn't say it.

This was a classic example of what Holmes Welch, a wonderful American scholar, in the late 1950s called the "Chinese art of make believe," the ability of Chinese, if required, to engage in imaginative negotiations often using euphemisms or fictions to reach agreements that wouldn't otherwise be possible. And Ma and the Mainland Chinese, using these unofficial devices, concluded over 23 important agreements. This was a great achievement.

In 2012, when asked by the Taiwan media what did I think of Ma's second-term prospects, I said: "If he can manage to go on making agreements with the Mainland without sacrificing the island's security, he should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize."

That infuriated some of my former students from Taiwan because they were DPP, Taiwan Independence people, some of them, and certainly anti-Kuomintang people. They and their parents had fought the Kuomintang dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek and forced the democratization of Chiang's heirs. Ma, by assuming the leadership of the modernized KMT, was able to build upon their achievements and gain credit for impressive steps toward reconciling with the Mainland.

I've always been more sympathetic to the opposition DPP people than to the KMT because they were the oppressed, they suffered the human rights violations, thousands of their people were killed in February 1947 during the so-called "2.28" campaign. It was a purge; a massacre. These people have suffered terribly, and I sympathize with them, but still you have to recognize Ma's new Kuomintang, while it hasn't gotten rid of all the vestiges of the old dictatorship, has done a lot to help the modernization of Taiwan.

The sad thing is that his successor as president, a very able DPP woman, Ms. Tsai Ing-wen, even though she has tried hard to not rock the boat of cross-Strait relations by not pushing for formal Taiwan independence, has failed to convince the Mainland of her sincerity. Since she came in in 2016, the Mainland has refused to implement some of the agreements that Ma concluded, and that has had a very negative effect. It's part of the pressure that the Mainland is bringing to bear.

The Communists not only do military maneuvers around the island and send their planes around it, etc., they not only are squeezing Taiwan economically, they're refusing to deal with the new Taiwan government, even though it was legitimately elected. Beijing refuses to recognize that the majority of people on the island don't want to be integrated with China.

You have to say this is a very difficult situation for Taiwan. Tsai is trying to get greater U.S. help. Tsai is also trying to implement a so-called "Southern policy," in an effort to reduce Taiwan's economic reliance on the Mainland by expanding its relationships with all the Southeast Asian countries and even Australia. This effort is having some positive effect, but Taiwan still has serious economic problems, in part because the Mainland itself is having economic problems. As China's economy continues to slow down, Taiwan has greater problems.

So the U.S. is confronted by a very volatile situation in the Greater China region at the moment. Most people aren't now focusing on Taiwan as part of our China dilemmas. They're more concerned with trade issues and with Trump's attempt to use trade to press the Mainland to open its economy in the way it keeps pledging to do, also with the South China Sea and so-called Chinese "aggression" there, and with the dangerous situation regarding North Korea. We seem to have many more immediate problems than those presented concerning Taiwan.

But the ultimate challenge—and it's coming back to bite us again—is Taiwan. The American people are going to be confronted with a huge issue, and that issue is full of ambiguity: If push comes to shove and military action breaks out in the Taiwan Strait, are we going to say: "Look, we have so many headaches in the Middle East, we're involved in an endless mess in Syria. We've not succeeded in leaving Afghanistan. Although the war has ended in Iraq, we haven't gotten out of there. There is no satisfactory solution to any of our involvements in the Middle East, including Iran and Yemen. Are we going to get involved in a war with China over Taiwan?"

Beijing is now a big potato, and can do a lot of damage. It has a huge number of missiles and many long-range nuclear weapons. So are Americans going to say what England's Prime Minister Chamberlain said when Hitler threatened Czechoslovakia before World War II: "It's a little country far away"? What are we going to do?

The Taiwan Relations Act, as reinforced yesterday by Assistant Secretary of Defense Schriver, says we should come to the aid of Taiwan. Well, will we? And to what extent?

The American people don't know much about Taiwan. The typical story, maybe it's apocryphal, but I think it's plausible: An American woman was interviewed about six months ago by an American journalist who asked, "What do you think about Taiwan?" And she said, "Oh, I love Thai food."


JEROME COHEN: So what level of consciousness and awareness is there outside of Washington about Taiwan? That's why I'm delighted you're doing this broadcast.

DEVIN STEWART: Well, thank you so much, Jerry. I guess you're teaching your course at NYU on the TRA very soon.

JEROME COHEN: Well, it's a course on China and international law. Tomorrow we talk about the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979 and its background and the earlier roles of Kissinger and Nixon and the implications of what they did for American politics also.

China is so tied up with American politics, and it's come back to be a major issue. It is now a major issue for various reasons, but it was that way in the late 1940s too, beginning in 1948.

In 1957 I started to work at a law firm in Washington for Dean Acheson. He had been our secretary of state during the critical postwar years.

DEVIN STEWART: Which firm was this?

JEROME COHEN: Covington & Burling.

Acheson had been Harry Truman's secretary of state. His role was crucial, although most people here don't remember this. January 1950 witnessed the culmination of about a year and a half of very active, vitriolic American discussion about the United States and China. It was obvious China was being lost to the communists. There was huge political retribution at home in the United States.

Whose responsibility was this, people asked? Had the Democratic administration of FDR and then Truman, his successor, "lost China" because of mistakes that they had made in policy? I remember once when I was working with Mr. Acheson, we were talking about this. This was long before I discovered China. He sighed: "'The man who lost China.' Do you think that will be on my tombstone?" Trying to make a joke, I foolishly said: "Nobody could be that absent-minded. It's not credible. China's too big to lose." But John Foster Dulles, the Republican who succeeded Acheson as secretary of state when Eisenhower came in as president, had succeeded in establishing in the public mind Democratic responsibility for supposedly losing China.

The Chinese Revolution, of course, could not have been defeated by whatever America might have done. We might have played our cards differently, but I don't think we could have stopped what happened.

But the domestic consequences in the United States were great. By January 1950 Chairman Mao's forces had established the People's Republic of China and taken over virtually all of the Mainland, except for Tibet, which they later did take over. The question then was: Would they go across the narrow 90-mile gap between the Mainland and Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek had retreated, and would they take over Taiwan? And in January 1950, despite terrific pressure from the Republican Party and others, Truman and Acheson announced we would not interfere in the Taiwan Strait. We would not seek to protect Chiang Kai-shek against the completion of the Chinese Revolution. Acheson said that, if we protected Taiwan, it would be interfering with the territorial integrity of an Asian country, and no Asian country would think that was the right thing to do.

Less than six months later, however, Truman and Acheson reversed that decision dramatically after no real public discussion. The Korean War had just broken out on June 25, 1950. We could have said, "This is a domestic civil war in Korea between North and South" But we said: "No. This is international communism attacking us, and that means the attack exists not just in Korea but also in Taiwan and in Indochina." And we immediately announced that the U.S. would do what we said before we would not do. We put our fleet in the Taiwan Strait to protect the island.

How could we justify that? Earlier in the year we had said Taiwan is part of China, even though there had been no formal treaty commitments. Mr. Acheson's famous statement in January 1950 was: "Nobody raised any lawyer's doubts when we put Chiang Kai-shek in control of Taiwan after World War II in 1945."

But at the end of June the same year we took another look at the situation, and said: "The legal status of Taiwan has never been formally determined," and this would have to await either a UN trusteeship or the restoration of security in the Pacific or a treaty settlement. We did a 180-degree turn in our informal interpretation of international law.

Today, almost 70 years later, things have changed. We've seen huge political changes. Taiwan is not the Taiwan of Chiang Kai-shek's dictatorship, but Beijing has a long memory and still remembers what position we originally took about the island's status. So that's why the PRC claims: "The U.S. has no role here. This is not an international question. This is an internal question of China," and its advocates try to use the analogy of the American Civil War. They say: "This is like your Civil War. Nobody said, 'Lincoln should not use force against the South,' so don't tell us we can't use force against Taiwan because this is not an international problem." The use of force in international law is banned, certainly since World War II. But they say this isn't an international law problem.

Of course, it is an international problem. It implicates security not only for the United States but also for many other countries—Japan, Australia, Southeast Asia, Korea, whatever. But Beijing still has "civil war" in mind, and that's the nub of the problem.

So when we say, "They're may commit aggression against Taiwan," they say: "How can it be aggression? It's a civil war. It's within our own country." This is going to be a powerful debate resurrected again.

DEVIN STEWART: Jerry, thank you for teaching us about the Taiwan Relations Act today and also the recent history of Taiwan.

I guess as a sort of final question, you alluded to the importance and the volatility of Taiwan's situation as a security issue in Asia. Is the United States doing enough to preclude that situation turning into a major conflict? And if it's not, what should the United States be doing?

JEROME COHEN: Well, the Trump administration itself is a volatile administration. It has had an uncertain China policy until now, but it does seem to be gradually evolving.

In the beginning, it looked like Trump was going to really change our China policy because he took a phone call from President Tsai of Taiwan before he became president. No president has ever done that since we established relations 40 years ago with China, so people thought, My god, this guy's gonna tear up the pea patch.

But once Beijing started to react adversely, Trump then went back and calmed the PRC. We don't know to what extent he will listen to those advisors in Washington who are still telling him to take a much more openly provocative role on behalf of Taiwan, and don't worry about Beijing.

We have to be careful, very careful, and many China experts know that. It makes me think in a way about the situation as it was in the fall of 1950. The United States had surprised people by going to the defense of South Korea in late June 1950.

After a few months, we pushed the North Korean forces back into their territory, and the big issue was: Do we follow them? Do we try to go into North Korea? Do we approach the border between North Korea and China? Do we try to bring down Kim Il-sung's regime?

Washington was divided. People said: "We mustn't do that. China will enter the war." And other people said: "No, they wouldn't dare. Those ragtag commies have just taken over their country a year before. Are they going to take on the world's superpower? They're bluffing." We went north and we saw the Chinese were not bluffing.

So here we're confronted with a similar question: Who's bluffing? Anybody? And some experts say: "The policy we have of "strategic ambiguity," leaving open 'Are we really going to defend Taiwan?' is the right way to handle the issue. It has kept peace for so many decades."

Other specialists say: "It's the wrong thing for now. We have to be clear." That's what we heard from Randall Schriver yesterday. We have to be clear because, if there's ambiguity as there was in 1950 whether we would go north, there could be a grave misunderstanding.

DEVIN STEWART: Jerome Cohen is a professor at NYU and a legend in Asia studies, and it has been a real honor to speak with Jerry today.

JEROME COHEN: Well, I'm delighted to prove I'm still alive.

DEVIN STEWART: Thanks again, Jerry.

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