A leading critic of Taiwan in the US Congress has warned Taiwan not to cause "another problem" for the US at a time when its military is heavily involved in Iraq and elsewhere.
Senator John Warner, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and committee chairman until the Democratic Party took control of Congress in January, warned Taiwan's leaders not to "play the Taiwan Relations [Act] (TRA)."
He was referring to the provision of the Act that commits US forces to maintain a state of readiness to assist Taiwan in case of an escalation of tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
Warner made the comments during his questioning of the new US forces commander in the Pacific, Admiral Timothy Keating, at a committee hearing that dealt with security issues affecting the Asia-Pacific region.
It was not the first time Warner has issued such a warning. Last year, when he was chairman, he said that the US might not be willing to aid Taiwan against a Chinese invasion or other hostile military acts, as called for in the TRA, if Taiwan was seen as provoking Beijing.
"Sometimes tempers flare [in Taiwan] and in such a way that it could trigger unintentional consequences," Warner said at the hearing on Tuesday.
"And I hope Taiwan recognizes that the United States of America is heavily engaged militarily worldwide. And we do not need another problem in that region," he said.
"So I hope they don't try to play the Taiwan Relations card to their advantage," he said.
Keating expressed his optimism that Taiwan would not act against US interests.
"I'm very confident that Taiwan understand[s] our position," he told Warner. "They understand how emphatically we emphasize to them that their actions should be defensive in nature and not offensive, and that we remain committed to helping them provide for their defense."
"But it is very much, very much in their interest not to conduct themselves, either by speech or by action, in a way that could be misconstrued by China in unfortunate ways," he added.
Keating said that the US had a sent a team of observers, headed by retired Admiral Dennis Blair, to this year's annual Han Kuang exercises, but that he had yet to receive a briefing from them.
Keating later told reporters that the "purpose of observing the exercises" was to "ensure that [Taiwan] understand[s]" the US position that Taiwanese are "to defend themselves and not take offensive actions," and to assure Taiwan "we would be prepared to help them provide for [their] defense."
In other matters, Keating downplayed the threat posed by the Chinese navy, saying "they are a long, long way from challenging us in a maritime domain."
"They're pretty good and getting better," Keating told the senators.
The Chinese have joined the US navy in "rudimentary" search and rescue operations, he noted.
"Their skills in those exercises were average. And these are fairy simple exercises," he said.
The issue of Chinese naval prowess is important to Taiwan in that any conflict in the Strait would heavily depend on naval forces or other forces operating in a maritime environment.
Taiwan would expect the US to send naval forces to the Strait to help defend against the Chinese military, and the Pentagon has pointed to a concerted Chinese effort to find ways to deny US access to the Taiwan Strait in case it wanted to attack Taiwan.
The Chinese "are nowhere close to as capable as our United States Navy," Keating said.
"We see their growth rate as not being insignificant in terms of capability and equipment, but they are a long, long way from challenging us in a maritime domain," he said.