Commentary

Prospects for the Taiwan Security Enhancement

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the proposed Taiwan Security Enhancement Act. Indeed, the margin was more than enough to override an expected veto by President Bill Clinton.

The Clinton administration’s strenuous opposition, however, dissuaded the Senate from voting on the measure before Congress adjourned. It is certain to surface again this year, and supporters of the bill believe that both houses of Congress will approve it and President George W. Bush will sign it into law.

That may happen. But there is reason to believe that proponents of the TSEA are being unduly optimistic. True, Bush expressed his personal support for the TSEA during the presidential election campaign. But that may have been merely to pacify Taiwan’s friends in the Republican party. The proposal never seemed to be a high-priority item for the candidate or his advisers.

There was, for example, no mention of the TSEA on the Bush campaign Web site, even though numerous other foreign policy initiatives were listed — and in some cases described at length.

There are other reasons to suspect that the Bush administration may be reluctant to see the TSEA become law. Bush believes that the president should be able to conduct U.S. foreign policy — especially concerning security commitments — without interference from Congress. It was that belief that caused him in the midst of the presidential campaign to speak out against proposed legislation mandating a withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Kosovo by mid-2001.

Bush’s opposition to that legislation is revealing for two reasons. First, he fought the measure even though it was supported by the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives and backed by Republican House members. (Indeed, a good many Republicans were less than pleased about his action because the bill probably would have passed if he had remained silent). Second, Bush himself had expressed skepticism about the wisdom of the Kosovo mission and U.S. involvement in the Balkans generally.

Nevertheless, he opposed the measure because he did not want the president to be bound by law to carry out a certain policy. Anticipating his election to the presidency, he wanted to be able to deal with the complex Kosovo issue in his own way and order the withdrawal of U.S. forces according to a timetable he deemed appropriate.

That attitude could well be pertinent to the prospects for the TSEA. Bush apparently sympathizes with most of the goals embodied in the legislation — especially the provisions for more liberalized arms sales and contacts between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries. But will he want to be bound by law to carry out such initiatives? Given his views on presidential power generally and the precedent he set with regard to the Kosovo legislation, it is more likely that he will want to preserve the latitude now exercised by the executive branch.

Therefore, it would not be surprising if the new president quietly urged the Republican congressional leadership to postpone consideration of the TSEA indefinitely. Although GOP leaders would not be happy about acceding to such a request, they would also be reluctant to embarrass a Republican president by defying his wishes. Moreover, Bush could reduce their resistance by promising to carry out some provisions of the TSEA informally.

Such a quiet approach would probably satisfy Taiwan’s friends in Congress as well as the government in Taipei.

Opting to work informally would also have the advantage of avoiding creating an incident with Beijing. Conversely, congressional passage of the TSEA would provoke a hostile reaction from the PRC. Quiet, informal implementation of some TSEA goals would also be preferred by the U.S. business community, which has considerable influence with the Bush administration. It is important to note that the business lobby worked hard last year to prevent a Senate vote on the TSEA.

For all of above reasons, those people in East Asia and the United States who expect rapid enactment of the TSEA may be surprised. George Bush is likely to be friendlier to Taiwan than Bill Clinton was, but he has ample incentives to covertly oppose that legislation.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author or editor of 12 books on international affairs.