New US Congress faces key decisions

FINGERS CROSSED: The nation can probably not expect any major breakthroughs, but some marginal progress on such issues as WHO entry is probably on the cards

By Charles Snyder  /  STAFF REPORTER IN WASHINGTON

Thu, Dec 28, 2006 - Page 3

US congressional interest in Taiwan is likely to manifest itself early after the 110th Congress convenes next week, with lawmakers expected to introduce bills to aid Taiwan that failed to make it through the legislative process in the waning months of the session that just ended, a new congressional research report said.

The issues that congressmembers are seen supporting will deal with a US-Taiwan free trade agreement (FTA), diplomatic and military contacts between US and Taiwan officials and Taiwan's participation in the WHO, the report said.

However, the report warns that congressional members remain concerned over the lack of progress by the legislature in approving the purchase of US weapons.

The report, Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade: Key Issues for the 110th Congress, was prepared by the Congressional Research Service, which provides members with research and advice on issues facing the lawmakers.

A section on China, prepared by Kerry Dumbaugh, the research service's chief expert on Taiwanese and Chinese political issues, states that "Congressional sentiment, long favorable toward Taiwan, has sought to find ways to support Taiwan's interests amidst growing congressional frustration over Taiwan's political gridlock and lagging defense spending."

"Early in the 110th Congress, members may seek to support a Free Trade Agreement with Taiwan, one of that government's high priorities and could renew efforts to discontinue funding for US government restrictions that limit US contacts with Taiwan officials," it said.

"As in past congresses, the 110th is likely to remain interested in helping Taiwan gain observer status in the World Health Organization despite obstacles mounted by the PRC [People's Republic of China]," it said.

"Finally, members of the 110th also are likely to remain concerned about Taiwan's waning defense spending and US arms sales purchases," it said.

On a broader scale, the report said that Asian security issues that "may draw the attention of the 110th Congress include flashpoints along the Taiwan Strait," while congressional attention will also be drawn to the "rise of China and its increasing influence in the region and globally."

The report also listed China's rising power and cross-strait tensions as "major oversight issues in Asia for the new Congress."

The report's mention of FTA legislation appeared noteworthy in view of the lack of success such bills enjoyed in the 109th Congress, which wrapped up this month. Three FTA bills were introduced this year -- two in the House and one in the Senate -- but none was even considered by the committees with jurisdiction over the issue.

The Democrats who will control the incoming Congress are generally considered to be less favorable to FTAs than the Republicans who lost both chambers in last month's elections, so the fate of a Taiwan FTA bill would seem to be questionable.

On the issue of contacts between US and Taiwan officials, one bill was approved easily in the House this past year, but died in the Senate. That bill, spearheaded by Representative Thomas Tancredo, would have prevented the Bush administration from spending any money enforcing decades-old State Department rules that put strict, and some say silly, limits on how officials conduct bilateral relations.

Those rules, for instance, require that almost all official meetings take place in area restaurants and social clubs.

On the WHO issue, not one bill was introduced in this year's session as the issue overall did not generate the attention it did in earlier years, when as many as several bills were introduced each year.

The Congressional Research report does not mention a number of other Taiwan-related issues that have come up this year and in years past. One would support high-level visits by US officials to Taiwan and by Taiwanese officials to the US, including visits by President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) to Washington. Others would enhance military relations in a number of ways.

Congressmen who have sponsored such measures in the past were by and large re-elected last month, and could be expected to push such legislation again.