Taiwan's Embattled President Seeks Free-Trade Deal With US

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Taiwan's president urged the United States Monday to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the island democracy, saying it would help to check China's economic and security dominance in the region.

Chen Shui-bian told visiting Senator John D. Rockefeller, a Democrat from West Virginia, that Beijing's communist government was "using its growing economic strength to speed up its military build-up," Taiwan's national Central News Agency reported.

Chen said China was also working actively to block the island from taking part in regional economic integration, dissuading other countries from doing trade deals with Taiwan.

At the same time, China was itself seeking free-trade agreements (FTAs) with a number of countries in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

Its ultimate goal was to "marginalize and localize" Taiwan, forcing it to rely on the Chinese market and eventually undermine its defense capability.

"I don't think China's rise as a new economic power will bring peace," Chen said, adding that a U.S.-Taiwan FTA would help to maintain Taipei's economic and national security as well as regional stability.

China considers Taiwan a renegade province, and it passed legislation earlier this year allowing the use of military force if necessary to prevent its formal breakaway. The U.S. has a major stake in the regional security situation, being committed by law to help Taiwan to defend itself against an unprovoked attack.

Chen's comments come at a time of growing U.S. concern -- voiced by senior officials including CIA Director Porter Goss -- about the expansion and increasing sophistication of the Chinese military.

The FTA remarks are also seen as an attempt by the pro-independence leader to retake the initiative after Beijing has been wooing Taiwanese opposition figures, holding out promises of freer trade across the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing's official China Daily said Tuesday Chen was ignoring the Chinese trade offer for political reasons, afraid that improving ties across the Strait would erode his pro-independence constituency.

Instead, he was trying to secure an FTA with the U.S., the paper said.

China's offered concessions to the Taiwanese opposition leaders are conditional, however, on Taiwan's acceptance of the "one China" principle that denies the island's claim to sovereignty. As such, they are unacceptable to Chen and his supporters.

Chen used Rockefeller's visit to thank the U.S. for its long-term policy of helping Taiwan to upgrade its defense capabilities.

Taiwan has strong support in Congress, seen most recently last week when the House of Representatives approved a measure requesting the Pentagon to relax restrictions on senior-level military personnel visits to, and other exchanges with, Taiwan.

China responded at the weekend by urging the Bush Administration to block a provision which it said would cause "severe harm."

The official Xinhua News Agency quoted foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan as saying the measure, part of a bill authorizing military programs, was a violation of U.S. commitments to China.

In line with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, Washington is Taiwan's main weapons supplier, a situation that especially riles the mainland authorities.

In April 2001, President Bush offered Taiwan the biggest arms package in a decade, agreeing to sell Taipei anti-missile systems, surveillance aircraft and eight diesel-electric submarines.

Chen's cabinet last year approved the $15.2 billion deal, but opposition Taiwanese lawmakers have been holding up approval for almost a year, arguing that it would lead to a costly arms race with Beijing.

Leading the opposition to the arms deal is the Nationalist (KMT) Party, which opposes Taiwanese independence. KMT leader Lien Chan was one of the two opposition figures recently invited to visit the mainland and feted there by communist leaders.

With Taiwan's parliamentary session ending Tuesday, it looked likely that the opposition would succeed in delaying a decision on the weapons sale until lawmakers return in September - despite a recent appeal from several dozen U.S. lawmakers who urged Lien to expedite the measure.

See earlier story:
CIA Chief Sees Threat in Chinese Military Buildup (Feb. 17, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow