US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms said Thursday that passage of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act (TSEA) will be one of his committee's top priorities in this year's congressional session.
Outlining his priorities in a speech to a conservative think tank in Washington, Helms blasted outgoing President Bill Clinton for having "repeatedly let down our friends in Taiwan" by going to China and enunciating his so-called "three no's" policy while there, and by failing to supply Taipei with sufficient arms under the Taiwan Relations Act.
"The military balance of power of the past 20 years is quickly shifting in Beijing's favor, and we've got to stop it," he said. "It is imperative that we act quickly [to reverse that trend]," Helms told the American Enterprise Institute.
Beijing "must be made to understand that its avenues to destructive behavior are closed off, and that Taiwan will have the means to defend itself, and we're going to make sure that's done," he said.
Claiming that president-elect George W. Bush during his election campaign "gave his enthusiastic endorsement" to the TSEA, Helms said he intends to work with Bush to enact the measure.
The extent of Bush's backing for TSEA was not clear. While the president-elect's Web site contains statements supporting the legislation, observers could not immediately recall whether Bush voiced support for the measure during the campaign, which quite noticeably sidestepped China as an election issue.
The Republican Party platform, while endorsing greater efforts for Taiwan's security, did not specifically mention the TSEA. Nor was it clear what sort of act Helms would support.
Last year, he introduced a bill that would strengthen direct military ties between the US and Taiwan and called for the Clinton administration to supply Taiwan with a number of specific weapons systems that it had refused to sell.
These included destroyers equipped with the AEGIS anti-missile radar system and diesel submarines.
That bill ran into substantial opposition both in the Senate and from the Clinton administration, and it never made it out of Helms' committee.
A scaled-down version, without the specific weapons systems and calling for a less extensive military relationship, was approved by the House, but died in the Senate.
While Helms, in his speech, appeared to seek an early introduction of a new bill, many observers feel that the Senate would rather hold off introduction of the legislation to give the lawmakers and the administration time to first work on less controversial measures.
Meanwhile, the US State Department's top Asia policymaker has expressed serious concerns over the course of cross-strait relations, citing misunderstandings on both sides, and saying both Taipei and Beijing must alter their positions to allow talks to resume.
"I am worried about the prospects for cross-strait relations," Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told a breakfast meeting of the Asia Society in Washington.
"The reason I am worried is because I believe neither side fundamentally understands the other."
Roth faulted Beijing for continuing to view the DPP in terms of its traditional pro-independence policies and trying to avoid dealing with the party by adopting a "very clumsy" united front approach.
If progress is to be made, he said, Beijing "has no choice but to deal with the current authorities in Taiwan, and to undertake any initiatives directly with them, not around them."
Roth also slammed Taipei for its misperceptions of Beijing's thinking. "It isn't clear to me that the new government in Taiwan fully understands the sensitivities of the cross-strait issues on the mainland side," he said. "There is still a tendency to believe that economic issues can outweigh political issues."
The Chen government sees the opening of the "small three links" as a "trial balloon" for the three big links of full trade, postal and transportation exchanges, he noted. But this "seems to ignore the fact that the mainland is unlikely to play this game until it has persuaded itself that Taiwan is willing to abide by what Beijing calls the `one China' principle."
Roth described recent statements by Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen (錢其琛) as "positive developments," saying they "certainly leave room for compromise."
Qian has repeated several times since early last year that both Taiwan and the mainland are parts of China.
Despite this, "it isn't clear to me that either side is actually prepared at this moment to engage and to reach agreement to resume cross-strait dialogue based on this formula," Roth said.
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