ANALYSIS: No review of TRA coming anytime soon

By Phil Stewart  /  Reuters, Washington

Wed, May 25, 2011 - Page 3

A top Chinese general says there is interest in the US Congress in overhauling US policy on arming Taiwan, but US lawmakers appear highly unlikely to revise legislation at the core of Sino-US tensions.

People’s Liberation Army Chief of General Staff General Chen Bingde (陳炳德), on a trip to the US last week, said he had received assurances in private talks with US lawmakers that some wanted to revise the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), which obliges the US to help Taiwan defend itself.

However, representatives of the lawmakers did not confirm Chen’s account and some denied they expressed interest in changing the act.

China sees the TRA as meddling in its internal affairs. It cut off military ties with the US for most of last year over a US$6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.

“Since I arrived in the United States, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some members of the Congress and some of them told me that they also think it is time for the United States to review this legislation,” Chen told reporters.

The Chinese embassy in Washington declined to say which lawmakers Chen met with, but the talks appear to have been held at a breakfast meeting on Wednesday last week.

Members of Congress who were at the meeting either denied through their offices they gave such assurances to Chen or declined comment. Two sources said Chen was mistaken.

“No one at the breakfast suggested that Congress should review the Taiwan Relations Act, except for General Chen himself,” one staffer who was at the meeting said on condition of anonymity.

“No member [of Congress] at the meeting said that,” another source said.

Checks by Reuters showed that Chen met on Wednesday last week with US Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the US Senate Intelligence Committee; Senator Joseph Lieberman, head of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; and Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois.

Chen also met US Representatives Rick Larsen and Charles Boustany, the chairs of the congressional US-China Working Group.

Aides to Lieberman, Kirk and Larsen denied the lawmakers told Chen they wanted the US to review the TRA. Feinstein and Boustany’s offices declined comment.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, Chen’s host last week, said he was not aware of any priority in Congress for reviewing the law.

The debate comes amid growing calls from some members of Congress and Taiwan for US President Barack Obama’s administration to again sell weapons to Taiwan. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) recently asked for Washington to provide new F-16C/D aircraft and diesel-powered submarines.

“The US must help Taiwan level the playing field,” Ma said in a videoconference this month with the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Negotiating with a giant like the Chinese mainland is not without its risk. The right leverage must be in place.”

Senator Richard Lugar wrote to US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last month warning of Taiwan’s flagging air combat capabilities. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, head of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a hearing this month that Taiwan’s need for new fighter aircraft was “increasingly urgent.”

James Miller, a top Pentagon official, said at the hearing that the US Department of Defense was finalizing a long-awaited report on Taiwan arms sales that would be ready “very soon.”

Dean Cheng (成斌) of the Heritage Foundation said the Obama administration would like to avoid selling Taiwan weapons for as long as possible in order to safeguard ties with Beijing.

“But I think as President Ma’s recent speeches have indicated, you can’t do this [delay] much longer,” Cheng said. “I think that the administration is going to have to act.”