The Clinton administration has mobilized the business community and its own officials to try to block or dilute a little-noticed bill on U.S.-Taiwan relations that the administration fears could complicate its relationship with China.
Administration concerns about the bill, called the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, rose sharply in recent days as the chances for House passage of the measure increased. The act is strongly supported by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Committee on International Relations. The bill was drafted in the office of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
If enacted, the bill would require the administration to upgrade its military relationship with Taiwan, establish a new communications link between the U.S. and Taiwanese armed forces, and encourage the sale of more advanced equipment to Taiwan, including a ballistic missile defense system as it is developed. The act would require the executive branch to report all of Taiwan's requests for arms to Congress.
"It moves us very close, if not all the way there, to a formal military alliance with Taiwan," said one administration official, who said such a change would vastly complicate relations with Beijing. For 20 years, U.S. administrations have been trying to balance full recognition of China and the interests of Taiwan, which has many influential supporters in this country.
An administration ally in the maneuvering over the bill, Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), chairman of the International Relations subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, took the unusual step Friday of disclosing the contents of this year's U.S. arms sales package for Taiwan to demonstrate that new legislation isn't required.
In an interview, Bereuter said the latest arms sales approved by the United States will give Taiwan early-warning radar to detect Chinese missile launches, new and upgraded Patriot 3 anti-missile batteries and new equipment intended to ensure the technological superiority of the Taiwanese air force over its Chinese counterpart.
Administration officials said later that Taiwan would get six new Patriot 3 batteries. Officials added that Washington and Taiwan are discussing the possible sale of submarine-hunting P-3 Orion aircraft and advanced Aegis battle-management radar for battleships.
When he introduced the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in April, Helms was blunt about its potential impact on the Chinese government. "Some are going to say this is provocative," Helms said. "They will claim that doing these things will upset the United States' relationship with China. This is true. The Red Chinese won't like this bill."
The Clinton administration decided in recent days that the House could pass this bill, causing a serious diplomatic flap. It launched an intense behind-the-scenes effort to delay action on the proposal or, if that failed, to rewrite it to make it less offensive to China and to the administration. Business lobbyists have joined in making this case.
Bereuter said it would be particularly unfortunate to create a new irritant in Chinese-American relations when the two countries have just renewed negotiations to bring China into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Farm states such as Bereuter's Nebraska, as well as many American businesses, expect big economic benefits from Chinese membership in the WTO. "We don't want to give [China] an excuse" to derail these negotiations now, Bereuter said.
The United States has long formally adhered to a "one China" policy, echoing the position taken by both Chinese and Taiwanese governments that Taiwan is part of China. But this summer, Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan's president, said China should treat Taiwan as a "state." His remarks reaggravated relations across the Taiwan Strait, led to military maneuvers in China and prompted the United States to forcefully reiterate its one-China policy. U.S. officials disputed Lee's remark.
The situation is further complicated by Taiwan's changing status in American politics. For years, Taiwan was ruled under martial law by an authoritarian dictatorship. But it has become a vibrant democracy and won the admiration of many Americans who once criticized the island. For example, one of the leading liberals in the House, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), is a co-sponsor of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act. In the Senate, Sen. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.) is a co-sponsor.
In the House, the Republican leadership has been pushing the new bill. Administration officials say they are doing so to embarrass President Clinton over China policy.
DeLay introduced the bill in the House and has been pushing for its early approval. In an interview Friday, DeLay said of the administration: "On one hand, they kowtow to the People's Republic of China; on the other hand, they starve Taiwan for weapons, constantly discouraging them from building up opportunities to defend themselves." This is another example of a "failed foreign policy," DeLay said.
The bill's proponents had expected it to be marked up in the House International Relations Committee late last month, but Bereuter's concerns slowed it down. People lobbying for and against the bill say it might well pass the full House if it reaches the floor. It appears to have less support in the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.
Staff writers Bradley Graham and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.