China decries U.S. bill to improve Taiwan ties

Clinton has said he will veto measure on military relations

February 03, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- The Chinese government summoned U.S. Ambassador Joseph W. Prueher yesterday afternoon to denounce the House of Representatives' passage of a bill Tuesday that would increase Taiwan-U.S. military ties -- though the Clinton administration has said it will veto the bill.

The bill, approved 341-70, would permit direct communication between the two militaries and create more opportunities for Taiwanese officers to study at U.S. military schools.

China, which views Taiwan as a rebel province, sees the bill as an attempt to meddle in its domestic politics and undermine America's long-standing recognition that Taiwan is a part of China.

The measure "seriously infringed upon China's sovereignty and grossly interfered in China's internal affairs," Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Prueher, according to a statement posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Web page. "Should this bill be passed and become law, it will further aggravate the tension across the Taiwan Strait, undermine peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and seriously impair and disrupt China-U.S. relations."

With less than two months before Taiwan's presidential elections, the relationship between China and its island neighbor remains strained. Last summer, Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui announced that the two Chinas should negotiate their differences as equals on a "state-to-state" basis.

Angry at what it saw as a drift toward a formal declaration of independence, Beijing again threatened to attack Taiwan.

The "Taiwan question" stretches back to 1949 when Nationalist troops fled to the island at the end of the Chinese civil war. Until recently, Taiwan had agreed to the fiction that there was only one China to keep the peace.

Lee's statement last July scrapped that notion, but the mainland has refrained from military action. Many analysts think Beijing is waiting for Lee's retirement and hoping that his successor will be more to its liking.

Appealing to mainland leaders as well as Taiwanese voters, the presidential candidate from Taiwan's main opposition party, Chen Shui-bian, said Sunday that his Democratic Progressive Party would not declare independence if he won the election March 18.

Taiwan is the most sensitive issue between China and the United States and one of the biggest potential flash points for conflict in Asia.

Nearly four years ago, China conducted missile tests just off Taiwan's shores as people there prepared for their first direct presidential election. In response, the U.S. sent two carrier groups to the area, a force commanded by Prueher, who was an admiral at the time.

Beijing has offered to reunite peacefully with Taiwan under a policy of "one country/two systems," similar to the deal it struck with Hong Kong, in which the former British colony has been able to maintain its economic system and way of life.

"The people across the Taiwan Strait are brothers," a Chinese scholar said yesterday in an official briefing, trying to strike a conciliatory note.

Taiwan, though, is a de-facto country. It has a thriving democracy, a strong economy and an emerging national identity that is increasingly distinct from the mainland. Most Taiwanese see little reason to give up their sovereignty to an authoritarian regime in Beijing.

Supporters of the U.S. House bill, known as the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, say it was inspired by a reported missile buildup along the mainland coast across from Taiwan and continued Chinese human rights abuses.

They see it as an extension of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which allows the United States to provide military hardware for Taiwan's defense.

The Security Enhancement Act, however, does not appear to enjoy as much support in the Senate as it does in the House, and President Clinton has threatened a veto.

The president has argued that establishing direct military ties is more likely to stir up trouble in the Taiwan Strait than provide protection for the island.

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