In the post-September 11 era, when George Tenet speaks the US Congress is more likely to listen. So the Central Intelligence Agency director's warning last week that cross-strait tensions could easily flare again should be heeded. This is not necessarily because of what Mr Tenet said, but because of who he is and the audience he was addressing. The CIA chief is a player in formulating the Bush administration's policy on international security. Congress is arguably the reason why triangular relations between the US, China and Taiwan have been so erratic over the years. Coming the day before the start of last week's defence 'summit' between US and Taiwan military officials, Mr Tenet's report could be seen as an attempt at a self-fulfilling prophecy: tell Congress that cross-strait relations could become volatile again, and its members may ensure that they do. If history provides any guide, it is not entirely unlikely this will happen. Administrations have come and gone since 1979, yet US policy towards Taiwan has changed little in substance. This is largely because of the Taiwan Relations Act, which the US congress passed soon after the administration announced it was switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. It requires the US to conduct assessments of the cross-strait military balance and provide Taiwan with the necessary weapons to ensure it is capable of defending itself against attack from the mainland. Despite fluctuations in the commitment expressed by various occupants of the White House, this has guaranteed the regularity of arms sales to Taiwan - the biggest issue of contention in Sino-US relations. Congress has in recent years gone even further, however, in trying to counterbalance what it sees as overly pragmatic gestures by the administration towards China's leaders. The most memorable was its decision forcing the Clinton administration to grant Lee Teng-hui a visitor's visa in 1995. This played a strong part in the worst flare-up of tensions in decades, when the mainland lobbed missiles into the Taiwan Strait in the run-up to Mr Lee's 1996 election as Taiwan's president. It may be that this is nothing to worry about, given the White House's fairly consistent approach to cross-strait affairs and the pragmatic approach to Sino-US relations adopted by Chinese leaders in the wake of the September 11 attacks. But if, as former American Institute in Taiwan chairman Richard Bush told this newspaper, there is a split in the Bush cabinet over China policy, the issue of arms sales to Taiwan could easily be stoked by the influential Taiwan lobby in Congress to a level that might trigger a new crisis. There has been no sign yet from the Taiwan defence industry conference in San Antonio, Texas, that a crisis is in the making. No one is suggesting that Taiwan be sold more weapons; in fact, the haggling seems to be over when Taiwan will pay for those it has been offered. But it is well known that US-Taiwan military co-operation is increasing at more substantive levels, such as in 3C (command, communicate, control) operations. Taiwanese politicians are keen to expose these ties for public consumption ahead of next year's presidential elections. It can only be hoped that their counterparts on Capitol Hill are not tempted to do likewise.