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Merits of 'Taiwan Relations Act' Discussed in US Congress - 2004-04-21

Top Bush administration officials stress that the 25-year-old U.S. law known as the "Taiwan Relations Act" has been instrumental in maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. They spoke Wednesday at a hearing of the House of Representatives International Relations committee.

After the United States switched official diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 1979, Congress passed into law the so-called Taiwan Relations Act. The legislation calls for peaceful resolution of the future of Taiwan, an island Beijing considers Chinese territory and has vowed to use force, if necessary, to recover. It also requires the U.S. government to assist Taiwan in its defense.

The chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Congressman Henry Hyde, said the act has helped promote an environment suitable for economic development.

"The Taiwan Relations Act has proven to be a source of stability in what is fast becoming the world's most economically vibrant region," he said. "The maintenance of the status quo, until there is a peaceful evolution of conditions, is extremely vital."

This status quo could be tested soon, though, following presidential elections last month, in which Taiwanese voters narrowly re-elected a man China sees as trying to move the island toward independence.

In one exchange during the hearings, Congressman Gary Ackerman asked Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly to explain what the U.S. policy would be if Taiwan announced its independence.

ACKERMAN: "If Taiwan declared independence, would we go to war with China?"
KELLY: "Decisions of war and peace are made by the president, and with consultation with Congress and so, it's certainly not possible to give you my personal opinion about that."

Regarding any U.S. assistance for Taiwan's defense, Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman said the Taiwan Relations Act intentionally leaves out specifics. "The Taiwan Relations Act leaves certain things un-explicit, leaves a certain ambiguity," he said.

However, Mr. Rodman added that one intended message is that the United States would be, in his words, "gravely concerned by a Chinese show of force against Taiwan."

"I think our job is to shape Chinese perceptions, to try to minimize the danger of their miscalculation," he said. "At the same time, we want our friends on Taiwan not to be making the situation even more complicated."

This point was echoed by Assistant Secretary of State Kelly, who warned Taiwan against actively seeking trouble. "For Taipei, it means exercising prudence in managing all aspects of cross-Strait relations," he said. "For both sides, it means no statements or actions that would unilaterally alter Taiwan's status."

Mr. Kelly said that Taipei also should take more responsibility for its own defense. "We're a little troubled because the share of Taiwan's GDP for its defense has significantly dropped on a steady basis over the last ten years or so," he explained. "So, these questions are up to Taiwan to fulfill the choices that the United States makes available to them."

Mr. Kelly added that Taiwan still has not come up with the money for defensive items it could have purchased from the United States a few years ago.