Remarks by Former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan at the 2019 Indo-Pacific Security Dialogue

“As Vice President Pence remarked last October in his speech outlining U.S. policy toward China, America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people, and for that matter, for all people wherever they call home.”
April 17, 2019
AIT Official Text #: OT-1921


Thank you to Foreign Minister Wu for the kind introduction.  It gives me great pleasure to be with you all at today’s dialogue and celebration of the Taiwan Relations at 40.

Thank you to President Tsai and the other representatives from Taiwan’s leadership for joining us here today.  I would also like to thank my Republican and Democratic colleagues from the U.S. Congress who have travelled to Taiwan to help me represent many others, both in Congress and the Trump Administration, who care deeply about this critically important relationship and the legislation that made it possible.

It is such an honor to be with you today to celebrate a legislative milestone – the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).  The TRA is certainly worth celebrating because it has served as the bedrock for U.S.-Taiwan relations, but the law has broader significance in purely American terms as well.  What I mean is this: the TRA is a textbook example of our constitutional system working at its finest.

One of the strokes of genius that our Founding Fathers designed into the U.S. Constitution was the keen awareness of the fallibility of human nature and the inevitable problems that arise from unchecked power.  As John Adams succinctly put it in one of his letters to Thomas Jefferson, “Power must never be trusted without a check.” Or as James Madison described it in the Federalist Papers: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

The basic concept was that through the separation of powers and checks and balances, different voices embodied by the President, the Senate, and the House of Representatives could contribute to policy making through public debate of the pros and cons of various policy options.  That our citizens could join that debate by expressing their views directly to their elected representatives in Congress further guarantees that their concerns feature prominently in the formulation of national policies.

In short, this constitutional design ensures that diverse perspectives contribute to decisions about public policy, including our foreign policy, and we are all the better for it.  A “Father knows best” approach to governing is not an American approach to governing.

Having served in Congress for two decades and having had the privilege of trying to herd cats as Speaker for the last two terms of my tenure, I can say from personal experience that bipartisanship doesn’t always come naturally, and Congress doesn’t always prioritize national interest above partisan considerations.  Shocking, I know.

But the U.S.-Taiwan partnership is a rare issue on which there is consensus from both sides of the aisle, and the Taiwan Relations Act was one of those transcendent moments when Congress did exactly what it was designed to do, and as a result, strong bipartisan support for Taiwan has endured for four decades since.

But it could have been otherwise.  It is useful to recall that on December 15, 1978, when President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would establish diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China on January 1,1979, the announcement came as a complete surprise to almost everyone within the U.S. government, including the entire Congress.  The White House had kept the negotiations a secret, known only to a small circle of executive branch officials.  It marked an about-face for an administration that less than two years prior had entered office criticizing Nixon and Kissinger for being overly secretive and obsequious in their courtship of Beijing.

Historians will have to determine which of the three administrations was most effective during the course of establishing relations with the PRC, but suffice to say, Congress had reason to be perturbed by President Carter’s announcement.  Earlier that same year, the Senate had included in a section to the 1978 International Security Assistance Act, authored by my dear friend Senator Bob Dole, a provision explicitly calling upon the Administration to consult with the Senate before it made any deal affecting the U.S. defense treaty with Taiwan.  President Carter had essentially snubbed Congress.

To make matters worse, the Carter administration prepared a bill – the Taiwan Enabling Act – that was a minimalist approach to transitioning to unofficial ties to Taiwan.  But the law that Congress passed – the TRA – represented a far more robust approach.  For instance, Congress established a legal guarantee of continual arms sales to Taiwan, saying the United States would supply “such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

Many Members of Congress further criticized Carter for having failed to obtain a clear promise from Beijing that Taiwan’s future would be resolved peacefully and for ignoring that key issue in the draft legislation.  North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms accused Carter of proposing to “sell Taiwan down the river.”  For those who may be tempted to reduce the Congressional reaction to mere partisan politics, it is worth noting that Members of Congress of all political persuasions were upset that Carter had acted so secretly, with little advance warning, and no Congressional consultation.  Moreover, as early as 1975, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater had threatened President Ford, a fellow Republican, with hellfire and brimstone – a “hell of a fight” were his exact words – if Ford sought to change the U.S. relationship with Taiwan.  Simply consider how Congress passed the TRA with overwhelmingly bipartisan, veto-proof majorities in both chambers – only six Senators voted against the TRA.

Marshaling a veto-proof majority was difficult then, and trust me, it hasn’t gotten any easier.  And yet Taiwan continues to boast such extraordinary bipartisan support, that we passed the Taiwan Travel Act unanimously in January 2018 and the Senate passed it unanimously a month later.  Bills passed unanimously in the hyper-partisan world we currently inhabit are few and far between.  It is a testament to the depth of Congressional support for Taiwan that it continues to unify us when so much else seems to divide us.

A Paul far greater than me, the Apostle Paul, challenged us to “bear one another’s burdens.”  The Taiwan Relations Act, far better than most pieces of legislation, embodies this spirit of fellow feeling and exudes the farsighted knowledge that threats to the security of our friends inevitably become threats to our own security.

The TRA did this in many ways, most obviously in its inclusion of a policy statement of American support for Taiwan’s defense.  The TRA essentially equates any threat to Taiwan’s security with a threat to regional peace – thus constituting a clear threat to U.S. interests.  In the words of the TRA, the United States considers any military action, boycott or embargo against Taiwan to be “a threat to the peace of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States.”

We owe a great debt of gratitude to the authors of the TRA for linking Taiwan’s security with America’s security interests. On a personal note, it is a matter of pride to me that the principal author of the TRA was a Wisconsin Congressman, Clem Zablocki, a Democrat from Milwaukee. Frankly, without the vision of leaders like Congressman Zablocki, who had the wisdom to explicitly link Taiwan’s security with U.S. security in U.S. law, we cannot be sure that peace would have prevailed.  And without peace, neither Taiwan nor the region as a whole would have enjoyed the conditions necessary to flourish.

Another key related provision of the TRA was the explicit link the TRA drew between the decision to establish relations with the PRC and the U.S. insistence that the “Taiwan issue” must be resolved peacefully.

While President Carter claimed he had “paid special attention to ensuring that normalization of the relations between the United States and the PRC will not jeopardize the well-being of the people of Taiwan,” the PRC did not make such a pledge, and the communiqué that established relations with them did not include any reference to U.S. expectations of a peaceful resolution.  Fortunately Congress again stepped into the gap and codified a clear statement of U.S. policy that made diplomatic relations with the PRC contingent on peace across the Taiwan Strait.

What was equally impressive as Congress’ ability to prioritize national interests over partisan considerations was the way in which Congressional leaders were also able to see beyond the Taiwan of 1979 to the Taiwan to come in future decades.  The TRA is strikingly prescient in this regard.  It reflected President Reagan’s “Six Assurances” three years before they were articulated.  The support for Taiwan and the palpable sense of obligation to it that runs throughout the TRA seems to further anticipate a day when Taiwan’s values and interests would more closely align with our own.  That day finally came when martial law was lifted in 1987, and the legislature was directly elected in 1992, and the voters chose their president in 1996, and every four years since then.

In summary, by enacting the TRA, Congress asserted its constitutional role properly, and the result was better policy that reflects the full range of U.S. values and interests with regards to Taiwan.  It also cemented that policy into U.S. law – providing it with a degree of permanence that policies lacking formal Congressional buy-in do not enjoy.

The strategy of the United States is to ensure that freedom and openness flourish in the Indo-Pacific region.  In this endeavor, we couldn’t ask for a better friend than Taiwan.  Taiwan is a democratic success story, a reliable partner, and a force for good in the world.

As a Pacific power with global responsibilities and interests, the United States has a natural interest in the preservation of peace throughout the Indo-Pacific region.  Stability in the Taiwan Strait is absolutely essential to that goal.

For more than 70 years, the Indo-Pacific region has been largely peaceful.  But this peace was not predestined.  It was made possible by two things: the willingness and commitment of free nations to work together for a free and open Indo-Pacific, and the credibility of the combat power of U.S. and allied forces based in the region.

This commitment, and this credibility, laid the foundation of peace that allowed billions of people to lift themselves out of poverty and to achieve a level of prosperity previously unseen in human history.

In the case of Taiwan, this foundation not only brought affluence, it also brought freedom – hard fought freedom, human rights, and democracy that have transformed Taiwan into a model for others.

Today, the importance of the concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” continues to resonate with our allies and partners across the region, including Taiwan.  And it demonstrates our commitment to a safe, secure, and prosperous region that benefits all nations – large and small.

When we say “Free,” we mean Free, both in terms of security—free from coercion by other nations—and in terms of values and political systems.  Free to choose trading partners.  Free to exercise sovereignty.  Free to embrace democratic governance.

n “Open” Indo-Pacific means we believe all nations should enjoy unfettered access to the seas and airways upon which all nations’ economies depend.


“Open” includes open investment environments, transparent agreements between nations, protection of intellectual property rights, and fair and reciprocal trade—all of which are essential for people, goods, and capital to move across borders for the benefit of all.


Taiwan is exemplary in each and every one of these areas, and we hope that Taiwan’s example will take root, grow, and flourish throughout the region.


As Vice President Pence remarked last October in his speech outlining U.S. policy toward China, America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people, and for that matter, for all people wherever they call home.


What does the United States want for the Indo-Pacific region and for the world as a whole?  It is simple and clear.  We want it to be free, open, prosperous, and innovative.  We want the rest of the world to partner with us in solving global problems.  In other words, we want the rest of the world to be more like Taiwan.


Taiwan actively uses its own experiences not only to help others, but to help others help themselves.  The world desperately needs more of Taiwan’s brand of leadership because the sad truth is not all nations know how to lead in humility, or how to pursue their national interests in a manner that is, whenever possible, beneficial to others.


Some regimes, by contrast, see power as a license to be predatory toward those who are weaker; this is the “might makes right” view of the world.   It is a dangerous and disruptive worldview – not really leadership in any true sense of the word – and that’s why we need Taiwan and others like it to show a better way.


And we mean better not merely in the mundane sense of being effective and materially beneficial, but also better in the spiritual sense of being morally excellent and genuinely good – the virtues that any decent parent extols when trying to teach his or her children to strive to be a better person.


Speaking of virtue, I am reminded of how President Reagan often referred to our moral and legal commitments enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act.  It is worth noting which of the two came first in Reagan’s mind: moral commitments.  It is that moral underpinning of shared values that instills unique importance to the U.S-Taiwan relationship.  Ours is a friendship grounded in history, shared values, and our common commitment to democracy, free markets, rule of law, and human rights.


In recent years, Beijing has disrupted the status quo by attempting to constrict Taiwan’s international space, including pressuring international corporations to refer to Taiwan as a province of China, enticing Taiwan’s partners to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and increasing military pressure on Taiwan.


Despite the pressure applied by China, Taiwan continues to find ways to contribute.  For instance, Taiwan has contributed tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to help those affected by the destruction caused by ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  And Taiwan donated relief supplies just this February to help desperate people in Venezuela.


Taiwan works every day to prevent the spread of technologies necessary for the development of weapons of mass destruction.  It voluntarily complies with UN sanctions regimes, though they are not technically applicable to Taiwan.


Taiwan is a global leader in promoting women’s economic and political empowerment and protecting religious freedom and the rights of minorities.  It has devised new tools for open and digital governance that are being emulated around the world.  Taiwan works tirelessly to accomplish the UN’s sustainable development goals, and it has become a one of the most effective advocates for promoting innovative entrepreneurship around the world.


Taiwan is showing precisely what it means to be a good leader in today’s world, and we should do everything we can to resist China’s politically motivated efforts to prevent Taiwan from playing this important leadership role in the international community.


Just yesterday, numerous Chinese military aircraft flew through airspace separating Taiwan and the Philippines in a maneuver that was clearly meant to intimidate Taiwan.  Chinese military planes have completely circled Taiwan at least 20 times since November 2017, and China’s aircraft carrier has circled Taiwan a total of five times since 2013.

On March 31, two Chinese fighter jets crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait in China’s first incursion across the line in two decades.  Such actions should stop.  They are irresponsible and undermine the framework that has enabled peace, stability, and development for decades.


I think it is self-evident that the single most destabilizing element of cross-Strait relations is Beijing’s refusal to renounce the use of force to achieve its goal of unification.  The world is watching whether Beijing treats Taiwan with the dignity and respect it deserves.   And make no mistake about it, this is a crucial test of whether China is qualified to take on the leadership role internationally that it believes is befitting of its size and stature.


Committing to peaceful dialogue as the only acceptable way to resolve cross-Strait differences would be the first and most important step to demonstrating to a skeptical world that China can lead in an inspiring and benevolent fashion.   So I urge Beijing to choose the path of peace, respect, and civility by resuming dialogue with the Taiwan’s democratically elected administration.

In closing, let me thank you all again for coming together to remember the importance of the Taiwan Relations Act.  And let me reiterate in no uncertain terms that our commitment to Taiwan’s security, which is articulated so clearly in the Taiwan Relations Act, remains durable and rock-solid.

So, thank you to President Tsai and to everyone involved in organizing this important conference.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to maintaining an enduring relationship with the people of Taiwan that will continue to grow closer and closer with each passing year.

Forty years ago most experts did not believe that our relationship with Taiwan would last to see this day, and yet Providence saw otherwise.  I know we have a lot of experts in this room today, but sometimes isn’t it a glorious thing when experts are proven wrong?  While none of us knows exactly what the future holds, something tells me that with God’s abiding grace, this partnership will continue to reach new heights, and meet the test of another 40 years and beyond.

Thank you again.