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WALL STREET JOURNAL - March 23, 2000



(Editor's Note: This is an opinion piece from Thursday's Asian Wall Street Journal. Barfield and Groombridge are scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, respectively. They are the co-authors of "Tiger by the Tail: China and the WTO" (AEI Press, 1999).)

Opposition leader Chen Shui-bian's victory in Taiwan's recent presidential elections underscores two important points. First, with an astonishing 82% voter turnout and the rejection of 50 years of Kuomintang Party rule, it is clear that democracy is well entrenched on the island Beijing considers a renegade province. Second, Beijing's clumsy attempts to influence the elections with threats and intimidation only strengthened the resolve of the Taiwanese people, making them even more reticent of reunification with the mainland.

Taiwan is not the only place, though, where China's strategy of intimidation has backfired. Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji's bellicose warnings in the lead up to the elections may have bolstered his position with hard-liners in Beijing. But they were not well received in the United States. Indeed, many Americans saw the threats as another reason to link trade and security issues when it comes to granting Permanent Normal Trade Relations to China.

In a sign of the changing times, even U.S. newspapers not known for their hawkish attitude toward the People's Republic of China - the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times - have all called for linking Taiwan's security with legislation in the U.S. Congress granting PNTR to China. The L.A. Times, for example, editorialized that a strong U.S. response to China's military threats against the island democracy would provide an "opportunity for President Clinton to convince doubters that he can pursue open trade . . . and stand firmly behind Taiwan."

The editorial writers got it right: The U.S. should continue to pursue open trade with China while strongly criticizing its saber rattling in the Taiwan Straits. What the newspapers failed to mention, however, is that a vehicle for achieving the twin goals of advancing Chinese trade liberalization and bolstering Taiwan's security is readily at hand. It's called the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, and it passed the U.S. House of
 Representatives overwhelmingly, with a vote of 370-41, on February 2.

 The Clinton administration has strongly opposed the legislation. But there are three compelling reasons why it should now reverse course and work with the Congress to achieve acceptable compromises on key sections of the act:

First, the United States must give a firm, unified response to the new, more confrontational policy toward Taiwan announced in the February 21 Chinese White Paper, which threatened military action if unification talks extend beyond a certain point. Second, in its amended form, the TSEA represents a reasonable basis for negotiating just such a united front by the president and Congress. And third, some political accommodation with Congress over Taiwan security will be vital in the drive to get the votes needed to push PNTR with China through the House - particularly among Republicans who must provide a majority of the votes.

As introduced in both houses of the U.S. Congress last year, the TSEA act did contain needless condemnatory language against the PRC and a controversial section naming specific weapons systems that the president was authorized to transfer to Taiwan. In late October 1999, however, the full House International Relations Committee marked up the House version, and after extensive bipartisan negotiations among the members, the bill was substantially rewritten. Specifically, the committee dropped the section authorizing individual weapons systems and excised the most inflammatory findings regarding the military intentions of the PRC.

The revised bill introduces as a new guiding principle the idea that the time has come to clarify security relations between the U.S. and Taiwan, and to move beyond the calculated ambiguity that has characterized those policies for two decades. It states: "Lack of clarity could lead to unnecessary misunderstandings or confrontations between the United States and the People's Republic of China, with grave consequences for the security of the western Pacific region."

The key operational provisions establish closer military relations between the United States and Taiwan but stop well short of creating a formal military alliance. Among other things, these sections mandate reports on Taiwanese defense needs, new programs for military personnel exchanges and operational training, and an annual assessment of how U.S. forces would respond to a military "contingency" in the western Pacific. The most
 controversial section of the new bill requires the establishment of a direct, secure communications system between the Taiwanese military command and the U.S. Pacific Command.

All in all, the TSEA as passed by the House is a measured response to China's more belligerent stance regarding Taiwan, and it could and should form the basis for a compromise between the president and Congress. Certainly, the president might press for changes and additions to the bill such as a legislative affirmation that the United States does not support Taiwan independence and specific assurance that it does not contemplate a military alliance with Taiwan (unless there is a direct military confrontation, then all bets would be off).

In facing the crosscurrents surrounding the upcoming China-WTO vote, House Republicans - and no doubt some moderate Democrats - will need to be able to argue that they not only advanced trade liberalization with the PRC but also stood up strongly against the Chinese threat to western Pacific security. Thus, the best way to reconcile these competing political goals is for the U.S. Congress to pass both the PNTR legislation and the Taiwan security act.

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