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China: U.S. Congress' Mood Shifts Toward Selling Arms To Taiwan

China's decision to keep holding 24 American crew members of a surveillance plane that made an emergency landing on Chinese territory could generate increased support in the U.S. Congress for the sale of sophisticated military equipment to Taiwan. At the same time, a member of the House of Representatives has introduced legislation that would revoke the permanent normal trade relations with China that it approved last year. Our correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports on the shifting mood in Congress.

Washington, 6 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The current tension between Washington and Beijing is making the U.S. Congress more likely to support the sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan and perhaps even to deny China permanent normal trade relations.

U.S. President George W. Bush will decide soon what weapons to include in the annual arms sales to Taiwan. The government in Taipei reportedly is requesting 30 weapons systems, including a sophisticated naval radar system and a surveillance plane like the one that is at the center of the standoff between Washington and Beijing. China opposes any U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province.

American and Taiwanese officials will meet to discuss the arms sale on 23 April.

These weapons sales do not require congressional approval, but widespread support -- or disapproval -- can be influential with the president. In the past, Congress has for the most part opposed selling such advanced weapons.

Now, however, China continues to hold 24 crew members of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane that made an emergency landing on its territory 1 April. And even senators and congressmen who do not agree with the sale of advanced weapons to Taiwan have conceded that more of their colleagues will support it if the situation is not resolved soon.

One senator, John McCain (R-Arizona), an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is not disclosing whether he would support the sale of specific military equipment to the Taipei government. But he says he would be "inclined" -- as he put it -- to give Taiwan the means to defend itself.

As for normal trade relations, Representative Duncan Hunter (R-California) introduced legislation in the House of Representatives on 4 April to revoke the permanent normal trade relations -- or PNTR -- that Congress approved only last year.

Before PNTR, China's normal trade status with the U.S. had to be renewed every year. And never did Congress refuse to renew it, even after the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, mostly because the U.S. wants to encourage its lucrative commercial relationship with China. Therefore it is unclear whether Congress would actually do so in the current circumstances.

Actually, "permanent" trade relations as outlined in PNTR are not unconditionally permanent. They are contingent on China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) by June. And because Beijing's negotiations on joining the WTO are not going smoothly, its accession is not guaranteed by then.

If that deadline passes without China's entry into the WTO, Congress must again vote on whether to extend normal trade relations with Beijing. This would give China's critics yet another opportunity to threaten trade relations, even if the Hunter's bill does not pass.

Claude Barfield is a specialist in trade issues with the American Enterprise Institute, an independent Washington think tank. He told RFE/RL that he doubts Congress would pass any bill revoking normal trade with China, unless the situation over the surveillance plane escalated significantly.

Even if Congress did pass such a bill, Barfield says, neither the House nor the Senate is likely to be able to muster enough votes -- a two-thirds majority -- to override a presidential veto. And he says he is sure Bush would veto such legislation.

Barfield said it would be wrong for Congress not to keep China as a trading partner.

"I'm in favor of engagement. I'm also in favor of very tough engagement. You know, I think we ought to give whatever weapons are needed to the Taiwanese. That doesn't mean that I don't think we shouldn't engage with the PRC [People's Republic of China]."

It appears that Bush agrees. He conceded early this week that the standoff could damage U.S.-Chinese relations, but on 5 April he made it clear that he wanted them to remain cordial.

"The message to the Chinese is we should not let this incident destabilize relations. Our relationship with China is very important."

Meanwhile the same day, reporters repeatedly asked Bush's press secretary, Ari Fleischer, about the arms sales to Taiwan and trade relations with China. They even wanted the White House's assessment of two trips that members of Congress had planned to take to China that now may be canceled, or at least postponed, until the standoff is resolved.

Fleischer responded cautiously to each of these questions with virtually the identical words: that the president is assessing the situation one step at a time.