WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top Chinese general says there is interest in Congress in overhauling U.S. policy on arming Taiwan but U.S. lawmakers appear highly unlikely to revise legislation at the core of Sino-U.S. tensions.
Chinese General Chen Bingde, on a trip to the United States last week, said he had received assurances in private talks with lawmakers that some wanted to revise the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, which obliges the United States to help the self-ruled island defend itself.
Representatives of the lawmakers, however, did not confirm Chen’s account and some denied they expressed interest in changing the act.
China claims Taiwan as an illegitimate breakaway province that must unify with the mainland and sees the Taiwan Relations Act as meddling in its internal affairs. It cut off military ties with the United States for most of 2010 over a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan worth up to $6.4 billion.
“Since I arrived in the United States, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some members of the Congress and some of them told me that they also think it is time for the United States to review this legislation,” Chen, the chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, told reporters.
China’s embassy declined to say which lawmakers Chen met with but the talks appear to have been held at a breakfast meeting last Wednesday.
Members of Congress who Reuters learned were at the meeting either denied through their offices they gave such assurances to Chen or declined comment. Two sources suggested Chen was mistaken.
“No one at the breakfast suggested that Congress should review the Taiwan Relations Act, except for General Chen himself,” said one staffer who was at the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Another source said: “No member (of Congress) at the meeting said that.”
Checks by Reuters showed that Chen met last Wednesday with Senator Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee; Senator Joseph Lieberman, head of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee; and Senator Mark Kirk from Illinois.
Chen also met with Representatives Rick Larsen and Charles Boustany, the chairs of the Congressional U.S.-China Working Group.
Aides to Lieberman, Kirk and Larsen denied the lawmakers told Chen they wanted the United States to review the Taiwan Relations Act. Feinstein and Boustany’s offices declined comment.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Chen’s host last week, said he was not aware of any priority in Congress for reviewing the law.
The debate comes amid growing calls from some members of Congress and Taiwan for the Obama administration to again sell weapons to Taiwan. Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou recently asked for Washington to provide new F-16s and diesel-powered submarines.
“The U.S. must help Taiwan level the playing field,” Ma said in a videoconference this month with the Washington, D.C.-based think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Negotiating with a giant like the Chinese mainland is not without its risk. The right leverage must be in place.”
Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April warning of Taiwan’s flagging air combat capabilities. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a hearing this month that Taiwan’s need for new fighter aircraft was “increasingly urgent.”
James Miller, a top Pentagon official, said at the hearing that the Defense Department was finalizing a long-awaited report on Taiwan arms sales that would be ready “very soon.”
Dean Cheng, of the Heritage Foundation, said he believed the Obama administration would like to avoid selling Taiwan weapons for as long as possible in order to safeguard ties with Beijing.
“But I think as President Ma’s recent speeches have indicated, you can’t do this (delay) much longer,” Cheng said.
“I think that the administration is going to have to act.”
Editing by Bill Trott