Congress pressures Biden to defend Taiwan
China’s military provocations toward Taiwan and President Joe Biden’s mixed messages are igniting a debate on Capitol Hill over whether to adopt a more aggressive official posture — including the possibility of preemptively authorizing Biden to use military force if Beijing invades the island nation.
The conversations, coupled with the White House’s efforts to walk back some of Biden’s apparent slips of the tongue, are fueling bipartisan efforts to ditch “strategic ambiguity,” the policy that has governed the U.S. posture toward the conflict for more than four decades. The strategic ambiguity doctrine, enshrined in the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, stipulates that the U.S. remains purposely noncommittal about whether it would defend Taiwan from an attack or invasion by China.
But a push to proactively send Biden a war authorization could subvert ongoing efforts by Congress and the Biden administration to restrict presidential war powers. And undermining the status quo on Taiwan, both parties worry, could be seen by Beijing as a provocation, rather than a deterrent.
“This needs a very directed response from all of us that is properly worded,” said Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Because there’s a very delicate balance here, and we have maintained that delicate balance for many, many years. And it would be troublesome if we upset that.”
“I’m not interested in a cold war or a hot war,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a longtime proponent of reining in presidential war powers. “And I think that we ought to be focused on finding ways to prevent any kind of confrontation.”
Biden himself has been the source of some uncertainty about the U.S. position. In a recent CNN town hall, the president said “we have a commitment to” come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacks or invades the island nation — seemingly contradicting the strategic ambiguity policy.
White House officials quickly clarified that Biden was not announcing a policy change and that he was reiterating the U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense. But many Republicans — and, indeed, some Democrats — had hoped that he was, in fact, telegraphing a shift.
Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), a retired Navy officer and the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview that Congress should consider sending Biden a “very narrow and specific contingent authorization for the use of military force” to defend Taiwan. That action would effectively gut “strategic ambiguity” and allow the president to respond immediately to a Chinese attack or invasion without waiting for Congress to send him an authorization.
Luria added it could take weeks or months for Congress to consider and debate a war authorization if China were to attack. The U.S. would need to be ready to respond at a moment’s notice, she said, and that means being “less ambiguous” about “what our intentions are.”
“If we are going to intervene in a way that would limit the scope of conflict, prevent China from invading Taiwan, or deter them, then we could avoid a full-scale war,” she said.
Most members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, are reluctant to give the president front-end authority to intervene militarily in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Such an effort would also come at a time when bipartisan majorities in both chambers are moving to rein in, rather than ramp up, presidential war powers by taking outdated authorizations off the books.
“I am not a fan or advocate of giving war powers proactively to a president,” Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a brief interview. “If the president feels that that’s necessary, then he needs to come to Congress and then he can get an authorization for the use of military force.”
A senior administration official told POLITICO that the White House will “continue to engage with Congress on these important matters,” and that the Biden administration remains committed to the existing U.S. policy toward Taiwan.
At the same time, though, some lawmakers are expressing an openness to further bolstering Taiwan’s defensive capabilities — in ways that could muddle the strategic ambiguity policy.
“I do think that there are ways that we can enable Taiwan, whether that’s through foreign military sales, whether it is leverage with China, whatever we can find,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a combat veteran and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Earlier this week, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), an Armed Services Committee member, introduced legislation that would send $3 billion each year to Taiwan for the purpose of boosting its military capabilities as a deterrent against Chinese aggression. He warned, however, that the U.S. should not suggest to Taipei that Washington would be standing by to head off an attack.
“It’s really important that we arm Taiwan and help them to defend themselves. China wants to gobble them up,” Hawley said in a brief interview. “But I think it’s also a mistake for [Taiwan] to say, ‘well, if something happens, the United States will just bail us out.’ They’re a long way away.”
Biden, a former senator and chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, has long been wary of drawing the U.S. into a war with China over Taiwan. In a May 2001 Washington Post op-ed, Biden criticized then-President George W. Bush for declaring that the U.S. has an obligation to defend Taiwan, similar to what the now-president said in the CNN town hall.
“No one expects world leaders to always stick the landing on their rhetoric,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), a Foreign Relations Committee member. “And the strategic ambiguity is maintained when, after a media event, one clarifies one’s comments.”
At a news conference in Glasgow earlier this week, Biden said he was not worried about an armed conflict with China or even “something happening accidentally.”
“This is competition. It does not have to be conflict,” Biden said.
Indeed, the Biden administration has shown little interest in stepping back from strategic ambiguity, even as the president himself has hinted at a policy change in his off-the-cuff remarks. And some lawmakers are cautioning against statements and other actions that could upend the long-standing U.S. policy toward Taiwan, noting that the situation remains extraordinarily fragile.
“I think we have had a reasonably solid policy around Taiwan for going on 40 years now, and I don’t see a need to make that sort of an abrupt change to it,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview this week that the U.S. “absolutely” has the capability to defend Taiwan. While he doesn’t believe an invasion is likely in the near-term, “the Chinese are clearly and unambiguously building the capability to provide those options to the national leadership if they so choose at some point in the future,” he added.
That includes China’s recent test of a hypersonic missile, which some analysts have referred to as Beijing’s “Sputnik moment,” as well as its recent strike-group flyover which triggered Taiwan’s missile defense systems.
Others, like Adm. John Aquilino, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, say that the possibility of a Chinese invasion is “much closer to us than most think,” adding that Beijing views a Taiwan takeover as its number-one priority.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), an Armed Services Committee member and a colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, noted that the U.S. has always reacted forcefully to actions by the Chinese that might portend a military conflict.
But, he said, “I think we need to think really hard about whether and to what degree we change the current posture.”