House Democrats ignored White House warnings of a presidential veto and joined Republicans yesterday in overwhelmingly passing a bill to bolster military ties between the United States and Taiwan.
The bill passed by a 341-70 vote with 140 Democrats breaking ranks, despite additional warnings from China the legislation could inflame U.S. relations with Beijing.
“Bipartisan dedication to this cause shows how both sides of the aisle can come together under the goal of peace through strength, and Taiwan desperately needs America’s help,” said House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, sponsor of the bill.
The Texas Republican warned that any split in support for the tiny island off the coast of mainland China would be detrimental.
“Any mixed signals by our government can easily be read by Communist China as complacency, so we must erase all doubt that we are fully committed to Taiwan,” Mr. DeLay said.
The vote came as the CIA supplied Congress with a report identifying China as one of the world’s major suppliers of goods and technology to rogue states seeking nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and missiles.
It also followed Pentagon intelligence reports disclosed by The Washington Times several weeks ago that China is building up its missile forces opposite the island with construction of at least two missile bases for several hundred new M-11 missiles.
Members of both parties said their goal was to show a unified congressional front to send a message to China that the United States is committed to protecting democracy in Taiwan.
The White House Office of Management and Budget issued a statement warning Congress that if it approved the measure, senior advisers would recommend that Mr. Clinton reject it.
“This bill would mandate a number of new security and military arrangements with Taiwan that could create dangerous, false and inaccurate expectations on both sides of the Taiwan Strait,” the statement said.
China told Congress before the vote that approval could push Beijing and Taipei toward a military confrontation and damage improving relations following NATO’s bombing of Beijing’s embassy in Belgrade last May.
However, Rep. Sam Gejdenson of Connecticut, senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, said a “a clear statement from the United States about Taiwan’s right to continue its political operations is critical for the whole world.”
Rep. Porter J. Goss, Florida Republican, said his concern was the lack of leadership in the administration.
“As a result, we run the risk of sending mixed signals that could weaken, rather than reinforce, the message of resolve we need to send to the Chinese leadership about our priorities,” Mr. Goss said.
The bill is not expected to get such an overwhelming response when it is taken up by the Senate. However, Senate aides said Republicans hope to slowly build support for passage over the next several weeks.
Majority Leader Trent Lott said the Senate would proceed with “due diligence.”
“I’m not interested in complicating their relationships now, particularly when Taiwan’s having elections in March and when we’re going to be working with China to see if they’re serious about joining the World Trade Organization and getting permanent trade status,” Mr. Lott said.
The House bill would allow Taiwanese military officers to train at U.S. military academies and end rules prohibiting military exchanges between U.S. and Taiwan officers.
It would also require the administration to report to Congress on “the ability of the United States to successfully respond to a major contingency in the Asia-Pacific region where United States interests on Taiwan are at risk.”
The bill directs the secretary of state to take into account Taiwan’s special status when considering military weapon sales, including China’s military modernization efforts, and calls for providing Taiwan with full access to data on U.S. weapons.
“The fact is, Taiwan is threatened by the aggressive policy and military modernization of the People’s Republic of China,” said Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee.
With the enactment of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act 20 years ago, the New York Republican said, “our nation has been morally committed to ensure the security of the free people of Taiwan.”
Led by Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat, only a handful of Democrats spoke against the bill during the floor debate.
“What this legislation will do is enhance instability and uncertainty in this region, and will not contribute one iota to the security of Taiwan,” Mr. Lantos said.
“All it will do is stir up a hornets nest in that region,” he said.
A report issued by the House International Relations Committee cited several threats against Taiwan, including incidents in 1995 and 1996 when the People’s Republic of China launched ballistic missiles over and around the island in an effort at “coercive diplomacy.”
The report also expressed concerns over recent remarks by Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji that the Taiwan question would have to be resolved, by force if necessary, because the Chinese people would become impatient.
The legislation was introduced last year by Mr. DeLay. It was approved by the House International Relations Committee 32-6 in October.
House aides said the measure was put on hold at the request of the Clinton administration because of the WTO negotiations with China. The United States approved Beijing’s entry into the organization.
The White House opposes the bill as an infringement of executive branch authority to make foreign policy, and administration officials have said the legislation would weaken Taiwan’s security by upsetting China.
Bill Gertz contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.