Prospects for the Taiwan Security Enhancement

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

The Clinton administration's strenuous opposition, however, dissuaded theSenate from voting on the measure before Congress adjourned. It is certainto surface again this year, and supporters of the bill believe that bothhouses of Congress will approve it and President George W. Bush will sign itinto law.

That may happen. But there is reason to believe that proponents of the TSEAare being unduly optimistic. True, Bush expressed his personal support forthe TSEA during the presidential election campaign. But that may have beenmerely to pacify Taiwan's friends in the Republican party. The proposalnever 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 Website, even though numerous other foreign policy initiatives were listed -- andin some cases described at length.

There are other reasons to suspect that the Bush administration may bereluctant to see the TSEA become law. Bush believes that the presidentshould be able to conduct U.S. foreign policy -- especially concerning securitycommitments -- without interference from Congress. It was that belief thatcaused 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 Republicanleadership in the House of Representatives and backed by Republican Housemembers. (Indeed, a good many Republicans were less than pleased about hisaction because the bill probably would have passed if he had remainedsilent). Second, Bush himself had expressed skepticism about the wisdom ofthe Kosovo mission and U.S. involvement in the Balkans generally.

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

That attitude could well be pertinent to the prospects for the TSEA. Bushapparently sympathizes with most of the goals embodied in thelegislation -- especially the provisions for more liberalized arms sales andcontacts between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries. But will he want to bebound by law to carry out such initiatives? Given his views on presidentialpower generally and the precedent he set with regard to the Kosovolegislation, it is more likely that he will want to preserve the latitudenow exercised by the executive branch.

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

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

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

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