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US-China Review Commission Discusses Taiwan's Defense

The U.S. government is emphasizing its support to Taiwan's right to defend itself, saying it is especially concerned with China's build-up of missiles targeting the island. The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which reports to Congress, examined the issue in Washington Friday.

Taiwan has unnerved Beijing, and to some extent Washington, by scheduling a referendum next month asking voters whether the island should boost its defenses, if China threatens it. Beijing considers Taiwan part of China, and has not renounced the use of force to take the island back, if it declares independence.

Attorney Richard D'Amato, vice chair of the U.S.-China review commission, says he thinks it is reasonable and appropriate for Taiwan to call attention to the nearly 500 missiles China has aimed at the island.

"If I were a citizen of Taiwan, I would consider it a very real issue confronting me to see this very large missile deployment," he said.

In testimony to the commission, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Randall Schriver said Washington is not against the Taiwanese referendum, as long as it is not portrayed as a step toward the island's independence.

"You'll notice we have not said, we oppose," he said. "Because on the surface and the text, that question does not alter the status quo, as the president has expressed his concerns. But, we do need to be mindful with the context and activities associated with this. When we say we're still studying the referendum, it doesn't mean that everyday we pore over the words. What it means is, we are watching in a mindful way how this is portrayed domestically, how it's spun, if you will."

At the same time, Mr. Schriver said, it is important for Taiwanese leaders to persuade their own public that it is necessary to expend resources to build-up the island's own defensive capabilities. But he added that, although Washington has no formal defense treaty with Taipei, the United States is likely to be "involved" in any cross-straits conflict between Taiwan and China.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless told the commissioners that the United States is serious about what it sees as a legal obligation to assist Taiwan in maintaining its own self-defense.

"The Bush administration's National Security Strategy that calls for 'building a balance of power that favors freedom' identifies the spread and protection of freedom and democracy as a national security objective of the United States," he said. "Taiwan's development into a true multi-party democracy over the past decade has strengthened America's commitment to its defense."

Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian angered China by calling for the referendum March 20, the same day the island holds presidential elections. Beijing accuses Mr. Chen of trying to garner public support for himself and for the island's independence. Taiwan was the main topic of conversation in Washington this week between U.S. officials and the visiting director of China's State Council Taiwan affairs office. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith is due to go to Beijing next week. His visit would follow recent trips to China by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers.