An influential member of the U.S. Senate has warned officials on Taiwan that the United States might not significantly come to their aid in a conflict with China, if the Taiwanese officials precipitate a crisis through unnecessary political rhetoric. Senator John Warner made the comment at a meeting of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which he chairs, with the U.S. Pacific Commander attending.
Senator Warner made the comment at the end of a long hearing, which included discussion of a recent decision by Taiwan's president to disband a committee devoted to issues of reunification with China - a move that angered Chinese officials.
"I think if that conflict were precipitated by just inappropriate and wrongful politics generated by the Taiwanese elected officials, I'm not entirely sure that this nation would come full force to their rescue if they created that problem," Senator Warner said.
The United States is obligated by treaty to help defend Taiwan, and that is a major deterrent to any Chinese military move to reunite with the island. But Senator Warner, a senior member of President Bush's Republican Party, urged Taiwanese officials not to make what he called 'injudicious' statements or judgments that could precipitate a crisis.
"I've been supportive to build up their military capacity. At the same time they build that up, they ought to build down their heated politics," he said.
At the same hearing, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral William Fallon, expressed some satisfaction with China's response to the Taiwanese move. He noted that a year ago, tension was much higher between China and Taiwan, and there were Chinese military moves and public demonstrations apparently encouraged by the government. This time, he said, that did not happen.
"If it's just rhetoric and it's reasonably moderate in tone, I think that's unfortunate but probably not particularly damaging," he said. "If other steps are taken, some military actions or other indications that people are being agitated or stirred up to take other actions, then I think this would be a real concern."
Some analysts say in spite of strong rhetoric last year, China is particularly unlikely to make any military move against Taiwan before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The analysts say that could make Taiwanese officials more likely to engage in strong rhetoric and to make political moves the Chinese government will not like.
Admiral Fallon also indicated he is not particularly concerned with China's recent announcement of a 15 per cent increase in its military budget, following a 13 per cent increase last year. He noted that the growth in defense spending is larger than China's overall economic growth. But the admiral said his meetings with senior Chinese military officers indicate that they want to modernize their antiquated forces. He said while some of their equipment purchases are noteworthy, any technological improvements come on what was a very low base.
"The types of equipment are troubling because the capabilities are new and modern. The numbers are not yet anywhere near the kinds of numbers that I believe truly threaten this country," he said.
The U.S. Pacific commander also said he does not see conflict between the United States and China as inevitable. He said he is working to expand military contacts with Chinese forces, following Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's visit to China last year. Admiral Fallon said such contacts would be an important part of U.S. efforts to encourage China to use its growing military, economic and political power constructively.