US Congress: A friend to Taiwan

By Nat Bellocchi 白樂崎  / 

Fri, Jun 17, 2011 - Page 8

During the past weeks, US Congress has become more assertive on Taiwan policy. On May 26, a record 45 senators wrote a letter to US President Barack Obama urging him to “act swiftly and provide Taiwan with the F-16C/D aircraft that are critical to meeting our obligations pursuant to the TRA [Taiwan Relations Act] and to preserving peace and security in the Taiwan Strait.”

Yesterday, the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee was scheduled to hold a hearing on US policy toward Taiwan, examining developments over the past few years and looking toward the future.

This closer scrutiny is good. At pivotal moments in history, Congress has played a key role in shaping US policy toward Taiwan and its people. In early 1979, after the administration of then-US president Jimmy Carter had severed diplomatic relations with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), Congress stepped in and drafted the TRA, which stipulates that peace and security in the Taiwan Strait and a peaceful resolution to Taiwan’s future are key elements of US policy.

A few years later, in the early and mid-1980s, Congress again played a key role: This time in Taiwan’s transition to democracy. Then-senators Ted Kennedy and Claiborne Pell, together with representatives Steven Solarz and Jim Leach, held frequent hearings and made statements urging the KMT to lift martial law and establish a multiparty political system.

This happened in 1986 and 1987, after which Taiwan made its momentous transition to a fully democratic political system. The first elections for all seats of the Legislative Yuan took place in 1992 and the first presidential elections by popular vote in 1996.

During the years of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), Congress yet again played a key role, this time in convincing the administration of former US president Bill Clinton to allow Lee to visit his alma mater, Cornell University. As chairman of the board of the American Institute in Taiwan it was my honor to welcome Lee to Cornell.

In the aftermath of the Cornell visit, China started to rattle its saber and launched missiles against Taiwan, which led to the Taiwan Strait Crisis in the spring of 1996 and necessitated the sending of two US carrier battle groups into the area around Taiwan.

Regrettably, the Clinton administration drew the wrong conclusions from the chain of events and started to make conciliatory gestures toward the People’s Republic of China, culminating in the infamous “three noes” pronounced during Clinton’s June 1998 visit to Beijing: “We have a ‘one China’ policy that we don’t support a ‘one China, one Taiwan’ policy or a ‘two Chinas’ policy. We don’t support Taiwan independence, and we don’t support Taiwanese membership in international organizations that require statehood.”

Congress was quick to rebut Clinton, saying that the new formulation was a major change of policy which was not in keeping with the TRA: The Senate passed SCR-107, affirming US commitments to Taiwan, by a vote of 92 to zero, while the House passed a similar measure, HCR 301, by an equally overwhelming vote of 390 to 1.

Clinton did try to do some damage control by asserting that the future of Taiwan needed to be determined “with the assent of the people of Taiwan” in speeches in early 2000, but the Clinton White House clung to the new formulations — which are perpetuated to this day — and Congress got busy with other burning issues.

At the present time, the renewed interest by Congress could focus on righting the wrongs of 1998 and insisting that its interpretation of the “one China” policy only means that it recognizes one government as the government of China: The one in Beijing, and no more than that.

However, as far as Taiwan is concerned, the US needs to demonstrate some new vision. We need to lift the artificial restrictions which we have imposed on our relations with the democratic nation of Taiwan, we need to make defensive weapons such as the F-16s available according to the TRA and we need to work more diligently to ensure that Taiwan is allowed to contribute fully to the international community and become an equal member in all international organizations.

Muddling through along the lines of present policy is no option: The future of a democratic country is at stake.

Nat Bellocchi served as US ambassador to Botswana and is a former chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan. The views expressed in this article are his own.