Enhancing ties with US Congress

By Parris Chang 張旭成  / 

Fri, Jul 22, 2011 - Page 8

The US Congress enacted in the spring of 1979, in the wake of then-US president Jimmy Carter’s move to recognize Beijing and sever official relations with the Republic of China (ROC), the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which Carter was politically compelled to sign. The TRA is unique in diplomatic history, as it is a domestic US law, but governs US relations with Taiwan and China.

It mandates the US “to provide Taiwan with arms of defensive character” by committing the US to Taiwan’s security and restores a semblance of sovereignty to Taiwan’s status. It also openly declares an intention to “resist any resort to force” against the people of Taiwan and puts Beijing on notice that any use of coercion to change Taiwan’s status would be a matter “of grave concern to the United States.”

In a real sense, the TRA is very much a “function substitute” for the US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty, which came into force in 1955, but had to be terminated at the end of 1979 at Beijing’s demand, as it incorporated in substance the same protective relationship the US had maintained with Taiwan since the 1950s.

In recent years, there has been an alarming tendency by officials in the administration of US President Barack Obama to disregard provisions in the TRA, especially with reference to Taiwan’s defense, in obvious submission to Beijing’s persistent lobbying and threats.

William Bader, a former chief of staff of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, decried the fact that the Obama administration had “shown little to no knowledge or real interest” in the TRA.

Former US Department of State and US Department of Defense official Randall Shriver also complained in a congressional hearing last month that the Obama administration did not have high enough aspirations for Taiwan and castigated it for having severely neglected US responsibilities under the TRA to provide arms to Taipei and help Taiwan meet its defense needs.

Whereas the TRA clearly stipulates the US’ obligation to provide Taiwan with “such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary” for Taiwan’s defense, concern over China’s reaction has prevented the Obama administration from moving forward on Taiwan’s repeated requests for the sale of F-16C/D aircraft and submarines.

It is in such a context that US Representative Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, chairperson of the Foreign Relations Committee of the US House of Representatives, told a special hearing titled “Why Taiwan Matters” on June 16 that she would soon introduce new legislation “to enhance the Taiwan Relations Act.”

Ros-Lehtinen stated emphatically: “It is strongly in America’s national interest to re-energize and upgrade relations between our two peoples.”

In a wide-ranging speech delivered in Los Angeles on June 11, Ros-Lehtinen said that it was long overdue for Obama to sell F-16C/D aircraft to Taiwan and to work to improve relations with Taiwan, a great beacon of democracy in East Asia and an important US ally. She warned that the military balance across the Taiwan Strait continued to shift in favor of China, while Taiwan’s defense spending has been cut below 3 percent of GDP under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).

She is apprehensive that Taiwan appears to have become an afterthought in the Obama adminisration’s larger aims of engagement with China and there is “a new spirit of appeasement in the air.”

Is it possible for Ros-Lehtinen and her like-minded colleagues to enact new legislation to enhance the TRA and bolster US-Taiwan security ties? This is almost a mission impossible, judging from the history of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA).

In March 1999, Republican senators Jesse Helms and Frank Murkowski and Democratic senator Robert Torricelli co-sponsored the TSEA to boost US-Taiwan security ties and to mandate the US to upgrade sales of advanced defensive weapons and technology to Taiwan, in an effort to override the objections of the administration of then-US president Bill Clinton.

The TSEA draft was taken up by the House of Representatives and, after some debate and amendments, was approved by a majority, albeit not veto-free, in March 2000. In the US Senate, however, the going was much tougher and several senators opposed to the TSEA were able to resort to a special senatorial rule to “hold” it, thereby obstructing its deliberation and ultimately killing it. In April 2001, three months after then-US president George W. Bush came into office, he announced a big package of arms sales to Taiwan, but refused to support the TSEA, because it could tie his hands in the future.

Does this mean Congress is powerless to affect the US-Taiwan relations? Absolutely not.

As Congress controls the purse strings, it is able to use allocation of resources to persuade, if not force, the executive branch to act. It could attach to the Defense Authorization Act a binding request for the Pentagon to provide a detailed report on the security situation in the Taiwan Strait and a complete review of Taiwan’s defense needs. Such a report would likely show the alarming military imbalance and China’s clear and present threat against Taiwan, and will thus have critical policy implications for the US under the TRA.

It is no secret that Chinese diplomats in Washington and visiting ranking officials from Beijing are actively lobbying the Obama administration and Congress. In contrast, officials at the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington have been relatively passive in accordance with the Ma government’s “diplomatic truce.” It is therefore imperative that Taiwan’s civic organizations, including the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), take up the job on behalf of Taiwan. It is incumbent on us to inform our US friends that our two peoples share the values of freedom and democracy and appeal to them to help us safeguard our independence and maintain the “status quo.”

Now that the DPP has nominated party Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) as its candidate in next year’s presidential election, it would be well advised to re-establish the party’s office in the US, as it was called the “DPP Mission in Washington” from 1995 to 2000. Now, as then, the office would communicate with and inform the US and the media where a future DPP government stands on Taiwan’s relations with the US, China, Japan and the EU, as well as the major planks of its policy platform. It must reassure the US that Taiwan, under a DPP government, would be a valuable, trustworthy, democratic friend that, unlike the Ma government, would not submit to China’s whims.

Parris Chang, professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University, is chair professor of general studies at Toko University and chief executive of the Taiwan Institute of Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.