In an historic phone call to Washington, President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) has secured the promise of Republican Representative Henry Hyde, the powerful chairman of the House International Relations Committee, to publicly support Taiwan's bid for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the US.
Chen called Hyde from his office in Taipei on Tuesday evening and spoke with the chairman for 20 minutes, mainly about trade issues, but also about other US-Taiwan issues, the Taipei Times has learned.
It was the first time the president has ever spoken by phone with a congressional leader directly from Taipei about bilateral relations, a committee source said, quoting information from Taiwanese officials in Washington.
The call came on the eve of a committee hearing yesterday on FTA issues with Asia, at which Deputy US Trade Representative Karan Bhatia was to testify.
Bhatia, who recently assumed his post, visited Taiwan in May on a trip that was received as an extremely positive development in bilateral relations, especially in the wake of tensions caused by Chen's decision earlier in the year to scrap the work of the National Unification Council.
After learning of the hearing, Chen called Hyde to ask for his support for the FTA, the source said.
Not only did Hyde promise support, he also agreed to become a co-sponsor of a House resolution introduced earlier in the year which urges the Bush administration to negotiate an FTA with Taiwan.
That resolution, introduced on Feb. 16 by Republican Representative Jim Ramstad, expressed the "sense of Congress" that the administration should increase trade ties with Taiwan by launching FTA talks.
With Hyde, it will have 55 co-sponsors.
Bhatia was expected to face questioning from committee members at the hearing about an FTA with Taiwan. All four chairmen of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus sit on the committee and will have the opportunity to question Bhatia about why the administration has not moved to start FTA talks, the source said.
Hyde was planning to voice his backing for a Taiwan FTA in his opening statement at the hearing, the source said.
Hyde, who will retire this year after 32 years in Congress, is one of Taiwan's leading supporters in Congress. In April, Chen awarded Hyde an Order of the Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon, one of the highest presidential honors.
The telephone conversation also dealt with bilateral security issues and Taiwan's bid to obtain observer status in the WHO, the source said. Chen thanked Hyde, and the ranking Democrat on the committee, Tom Lantos, for their letter to the WHO in January championing Taiwan's observer bid.
Chen praised Hyde during the call as a person who "has always been a friend of Taiwan," according to the source.
Chen invited Hyde to visit Taiwan, but it is doubtful that Hyde will be able to make the trip, in view of his advanced age. He is 81.