AmCham Taiwan at 70: Support for Taiwan Following “Derecognition”

Dutch van Gessel (left) and Robert Parker (center) from AmCham meet with Premier Y.S. Sun on problems posed by the change in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

It is regarded as AmCham Taiwan’s finest hour. When President Jimmy Carter announced in December 1978 that the U.S. government would be terminating its diplomatic relations and defense treaty with Taiwan to “normalize” relations with China, the future make-up of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship was left undetermined. With the U.S. embassy in Taipei about to close in a matter of months, the Chamber stepped into the vacuum, helping shape the content of Congressional legislation to ensure the continuation of solid, albeit unofficial, bilateral ties. 

An April 2009 article in Taiwan Business TOPICS written jointly by two former AmCham chairmen – Marinus “Dutch” van Gessel (1976-77) and Robert P. Parker (1979-80) – described the Chamber’s role during that period.

The precise timing of the shift in U.S. diplomatic recognition came as a surprise. Then U.S. Ambassador Leonard Unger was notified late on a Saturday evening through a phone call from Washington while attending the annual AmCham ball. Unger called on Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo after midnight to break the news.

But AmCham had seen the crisis coming, aided by van Gessel’s familiarity with the workings of Washington developed while serving as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce before coming to Taiwan to head the Corning subsidiary. As AmCham Chairman, he guided the Chamber in making the strategic decision not to oppose the improvement of U.S. relations with China, which seemed inevitable, on the condition that Taiwan’s security and prosperity were not put at risk. Van Gessel testified before the U.S. Congress, published a position paper, and organized a vigorous letter-writing campaign by AmCham executives. As the two former Chairmen wrote in TOPICS, the key point was that “the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s security was a fundamentally important business issue, not only a military and diplomatic one.”

Still, there was no way the Chamber could be fully prepared. When the incumbent Chairman, who had two weeks left in his term, was instructed by his company to steer clear of anything smacking of politics, Chairman-elect Rob Parker picked up the baton. The morning after Carter’s announcement, he gave interviews to all three of Taiwan’s TV stations, repeating AmCham’s position that it did not object to the U.S. recognition of the PRC, but took strong exception to the terms and the discourteous way “our friends in Taiwan had been treated.”

Taiwan’s radio and TV stations suspended regular programming for a few days to report on the crisis. Parker’s statement was replayed many times, and his message of continued U.S. business support for Taiwan helped maintain a sense of domestic confidence.

The Chamber then faced the challenge of devising an action plan and communicating with the membership. “Email was years in the future, and even fax machines weren’t yet available,” the two former Chairmen recalled in 2009. “Thus, we called frequent meetings of the Board of Governors and Supervisors, often on short notice, and van Gessel and Parker met together on a daily basis to coordinate AmCham’s efforts. Parker wrote a series of letter reports to the membership, updating them by mail once or twice a week.”

In February 1979, Parker flew to Washington to testify before Congressional committees on proposed legislation to create the basis for unofficial relations with “the people on Taiwan.” Calling the draft legislation “vague in expression, naïve in approach, and wholly inadequate to the needs of American companies doing business in or with Taiwan,” Parker made a series of concrete suggestions on how to strengthen the proposed law. He stressed the importance of 1) addressing Taiwan’s security concerns and 2) providing a clear legal framework for the continued functioning of trade and investment.

The hearings were broadcast in Taiwan. “Thanks to the power of television, practically everyone in Taiwan knew the stand taken by AmCham,” the former Chairmen later wrote in TOPICS. “When the final version of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) was adopted, they recognized that virtually all of AmCham’s principal recommendations had been written into law.” As the authors noted, AmCham’s role in helping to shape the TRA won it new and lasting respect in both Taipei and Washington. 

After the U.S. military departed, its China Seas Club became the new site of the American Club in China (ACC). Photo: Courtesy of ACC

During this period, AmCham also took on another vital task: assuring that American community institutions in Taiwan would be able to continue to operate smoothly despite the change in diplomatic relations.  Ad hoc committees were created under the Board to focus on specific projects, including ensuring the legal status of the Taipei American School and securing land for a new campus, finding a new location for the American Club, establishing an English-language radio station (ICRT) to replace the former U.S. military network, and creating a youth activities program for expatriate children.

With the assistance of key Taiwanese officials, the goals were all accomplished. AmCham’s efforts had ensured that expat community services essential to an attractive investment environment were not only preserved but expanded.