The government's insistence on pursuing a referendum amid initiatives on broad constitutional and other changes affecting Tai-wan's relationship with China has not only soured cross-strait relations, its effect on US policy toward Taiwan has been profound, arguably resulting in the most serious crisis in mutual trust in US-Taiwan relations since gangsters secretly supported by Taiwan's officials gunned down prominent Taiwanese dissident Henry Liu (江南) in his California driveway 20 years ago.
\nTaiwan's supporters in Washington are mobilizing to appeal to the US Congress, which begins a new session this month and will get down to legislative business in early March. They will be seeking strong signs of congressional support in order to pressure and offset the US administration's stance against Taiwan's efforts to disrupt the cross-strait status quo. They have been successful in the past in getting Congress to pass resolutions at odds with administration policy, notably in the wake of then US-president Bill Clinton's accommodation of China in supporting the "three noes" in 1998. While supportive of Taiwan, Congress is likely to be more reserved this time for several reasons.
\nOne, because of the US Constitution, Congress has a hard time initiating foreign policy. Usually the best it can do is to try to brake administration actions. To be effective in this regard generally requires broad bipartisan efforts such as those seen in amending the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) in 1979.
\nThe George W. Bush admin-istration has done a pretty good job in keeping Republican and conservative Democrat members in Congress together, even in the face of big disasters like Iraq. One can assume the administration can handle any congressional dissent on Taiwan more easily.
\nTwo, during situations of na-tional security crisis, the Congress is reluctant to go against the president on national security issues. Congress went along with then- president Richard Nixon's downgrading of Taiwan after 1972 in part because the opening to China was seen as a way out of the Vietnam crisis.
\nThere was no similar crisis seen uniformly by Congress when then-president Jimmy Carter normalized relations in late 1978, adding to reasons why members of Congress were prone at that time to second-guess the president and amend the TRA. There was no sense of national-security crisis at all when Congress pushed Clinton to grant a US visa to Taiwan's then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) in 1995. After Sept. 11, and given the protracted war in Iraq and big dangers in North Korea, there is a clear sense of national-security crisis in the US. At this time, members of Congress remain reluctant to second-guess the president on national-security issues in ways that would put US troops in greater danger.
\nThree, the issues for Congress at the time of the TRA involved the survival of Taiwan. There was a real sense that if Congress didn't act that Taiwan's future was in serious jeopardy. When Congress pushed on Lee's visa and later against the three noes, the issues were less serious from a US national interest point of view.
\nFew on Capitol Hill thought Taiwan was in jeopardy but many felt a need for partisan, particularistic and other more narrow reasons to take a stand against the administration. Moreover, supporting Taiwan was in many respects a "free ride." The Clinton administration was unlikely to punish a member for voting for Taiwan, the PRC was as likely as not to invite the member of Congress to a VIP trip and the US media would likely play positively a member's pro-Taiwan position.
\nThis year, members are dealing with the first US president in many decades who gives top priority to punishing his enemies; important segments of the US media have come out against the Taiwan referendum and China now has a proven record of resorting to military action over Taiwan.
\nFour, a big change from the past is that a member of Congress cannot be sure what Taiwan's administration will do. During the 1970s and 1980s, the credibility of Taiwan's government was good in Congress. Members of Congress could assume that what they were hearing from Taiwan's representative offices was what Taipei wanted. More importantly, Tai-wan's leaders worked hard to show how Taipei's interests were in line with US interests, and that Taiwan had no intention of causing the US unneeded difficulty.
\nThe situation became more complicated with the rise of Taiwan-American interest groups and Taiwanese political parties lobbying in Washington, but there still seemed to be a clear chain of command on the Taiwanese side.
\nPresident Chen Shui-bian's (
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