SCMP Saturday, May 20, 2000

Top senator warns mainland

GREG TORODE in Washington

The most powerful Republican in the US Senate warned yesterday that any fresh threats from the mainland during the inauguration of Taiwan president-elect Chen Shui-bian today could upset next week's crucial trade vote.

"I just hope China realises that this is indeed a very delicate time," Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told the South China Morning Post.

"I hope they will be watching their rhetoric and keeping it very cool . . . the wrong sort of remarks are one thing that could damage things here at the very last minute," he said.

"Many of us here send the new Taiwanese leader our very best wishes and congratulations. We hope China respects that, during what could be a very interesting weekend."

Senator Lott's appeal comes after earlier warnings that support of permanent Normal Trading Relations should not be "taken for granted" in the Senate - due to consider the issue after the House of Representatives votes next week.

His comments echo widespread fears across the administration and both main political parties over the potential for provocative moves by Beijing this weekend as the vote - described by President Bill Clinton as the most important this year - looms.

Concerns over recent threats from Beijing are frequently mentioned by Congressional opponents and fence-sitters among both Republicans and Democrats as justification for voting down the bill.

Administration officials and political figures have been making their concerns known to both Beijing and Taipei over the past few weeks.

Washington-based associates of the new regime in Taipei have been quietly trying to dampen expectations of any speech from Mr Chen that opens new ground in the independence battle.

His address comes as the White House intensifies its last-ditch attempt to ensure as wide as possible support from both parties for the vote.

Administration officials are privately sounding more optimistic, but warn the fight has yet to be won. They now believe they can count on at least 182 votes out of 218 needed in the House - a figure they hope will rise over the weekend.

Senator Lott is heavily involved in back-room negotiations over the attachment of side laws to the bill covering human rights legislation and arms proliferation issues - legislation that could add fresh complications.

The Senate Republican leadership is keen for a clean bill while the House leadership wants other issues tacked on.

But both bodies must ultimately pass the same document, sparking fears that delays to a final solution of the NTR issue remain a possibility.