Taiwan’s fortunes in the US Congress next year could face tough times, depending on the stance the administration of president-elect Barack Obama takes toward China, Taiwan supporters in Washington say.
With both the White House and Congress in Democratic hands, legislation opposed by Obama will likely go nowhere. However, bills supported by the new president will likely pass both houses, unless the Republican minority objects to them strongly enough.
“I believe that a divided government with a Democratic Congress and with John McCain in the White House would be better for Taiwan,” said Coen Blaauw, a congressional lobbyist for the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), who describes himself as a liberal Democrat and a “staunch Obama supporter.”
He says that congressmen are less willing to buck a president of their own party than a member of a rival party.
He may be thinking about 1995, when then Democratic president Bill Clinton blocked a visit by president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) to Cornell University, only to be overruled by a Republican Congress. The trip infuriated China, which Clinton had hoped to avoid.
“Mr Obama has said that he wants to talk, negotiate and cooperate with China. We would like to see a president who is willing to stand up against China and who is willing to call a spade a spade. Because, if not, Taiwan will be the first to fall between the cracks,” he said.
Traditionally, Republicans have been slightly more willing to pass legislation favorable to Taiwan, although the House has had no problem getting unanimous approval for pro-Taiwan bills under either Democratic or Republican majorities.
But as Taiwan’s lobbyists in Washington assess the changes, they have already begun to line up new supporters among re-elected lawmakers and among incoming congressmen elected on Tuesday.
In any event, Taiwan lost several of its leading supporters in the House in Tuesday’s elections, and lobbyists for Taiwan are scrambling to find replacements.
A significant loss will be Republican Steve Chabot of Ohio, a co-chairman of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus, who was defeated in his re-election bid.
In addition, the 150-member caucus lost 10 other members.
Four of those retired from the House, including Republican Tom Tancredo of Colorado, perhaps the most steadfast of Taiwan’s advocates in Congress.
Another former caucus member, Democrat Mark Udall of Colorado, was elected to the Senate, and is expected to be an additional Taiwan supporter in that chamber.
In the Senate, where only a third of the incumbents were up for re-election, the fate of Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican and strong Taiwan backer, has yet to be decided.
The other three co-chairmen of the House caucus — Robert Wexler, Dana Rohrabacher and Shelley Berkley — all won re-election handily, as did the co-chairmen of the Senate Taiwan Caucus, Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota.
It was not immediately clear which of the newly elected members of the House or Senate will join the caucuses or be friendly toward Taiwan.
But, as they look for a replacement for Chabot, lobbyists are looking at representatives such as Republican Scott Garrett of New Jersey, who took on US President George W. Bush on behalf of Taiwan in the Congress, and is expected to be willing to continue espousing Taiwanese causes, Blaauw says.
They are also looking at Republican Frank Wolf of Virginia, one of Congress’ leading critics of China’s human rights violations, and especially its record in Tibet.
The new political reality in Washington will also mean new priorities for FAPA and others among Taiwan’s lobbyists in Washington.
Prospects for a US-Taiwan free trade agreement, for instance, will be relegated to a low priority in view of the Democrats’ general opposition to such trade pacts.
But FAPA has already lined up lawmakers willing to take up the campaigns of Tancredo in introducing pro-Taiwan measures, such as bills calling for US diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and a higher diplomatic profile for the chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan.
“We have already lined up several additional members committed to reintroducing those measures,” Blaauw said. “So, for every crisis there is a silver lining,” he says.
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