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Congress Pushes Stronger U.S. Support for Taiwan

Nov 30, 2021

Astute observers in the United States and around the world have noted Washington’s increasingly vocal and substantive support for Taiwan. Most of the impetus for that development has come from the executive branch. Arms sales to Taipei, open collaboration between high-level U.S. and Taiwanese security officials, and displays of U.S. military prowess in and around the Taiwan Strait all increased markedly during Donald Trump’s presidency. 

That trend has continued under Joe Biden. Early on, administration officials emphasized that Washington’s commitment to Taiwan’s security and de facto independence remained “rock solid,” and they repeatedly used that same term during the succeeding months. Biden himself has been especially outspoken. When the president was asked during a town hall session on CNN whether the United States would defend Taiwan from an attack by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Biden responded unhesitatingly: “Yes, we have a commitment.” It was not the first time he had made such a categorical statement during a media interview. 

True, Biden’s advisers have walked-back such comments, insisting that there has been no change in U.S. policy and that Washington remains committed to the “one-China” principle. Nevertheless, the president’s comments have fueled speculation that an internal debate may be taking place within the administration, with hardliners pushing for a more explicit U.S. commitment to Taiwan’s defense. Despite the soothing assurances of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, Biden’s comments also are consistent with Washington’s displays of enhanced military and diplomatic support for Taipei. Indeed, just days after the president’s latest media statement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on all UN members to support a robust role for Taiwan in that organization. 

Although the executive branch has been the driving force behind stronger U.S. backing for Taiwan, Congress also has been playing a crucial, albeit less visible, role. The latest measure that pro-Taiwan senators are pushing is the Taiwan Invasion Protection Act (TIPA). Sen. Rick Scott (R-SC) was the principal sponsor of the bill introduced in February, and it has attracted impressive bipartisan support. The TIPA would give the president virtually a blank check to use U.S. military forces to defend Taiwan from an attack without any additional congressional authorization or even debate. Passage of the bill would dramatically transform Washington’s security relationship with Taipei. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) the president is authorized only to consider a PRC assault on Taiwan as a serious breach of the peace of East Asia, triggering a process of consulting with Congress about a response. 

In an October 11 Washington Post op-ed, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) praised the legislation as “a good starting point,” which indicated that she would like to go even further. The legislative campaign for the TIPA would be important even if the vocal proponents of such a provocative measure were obscure congressional back benchers. But Scott is a rapidly rising star in the Republican Party and a possible presidential candidate in 2024, and Luria is the vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Moreover, Scott accurately reflects the views of GOP hawks, and Luria seems to embody the views of a growing contingent of centrist Democrats.

The TIPA is only the latest effort by Taiwan’s ardent supporters in Congress to push the executive branch into making a stronger commitment to the island’s security. They already made considerable progress on that front during the Trump years. One key milestone was the passage in March 2018 of the Taiwan Travel Act. That law not only authorized but explicitly encouraged high‐​level U.S. national security officials to interact with their Taiwanese counterparts, reversing a four‐​decades‐​old policy. The following year, then-U.S. national security adviser John Bolton met with David Lee, Secretary General of Taiwan’s National Security Council, to discuss regional security issues of mutual concern to Washington and Taipei.

There is little question that Bolton and other Taiwan partisans in the Trump administration eagerly exploited the TTA to boost the U.S. security relationship with Taiwan. Thereafter, collaboration between high-level U.S. and Taiwanese military officers became both more frequent and more blatant. Visits by other prominent U.S. officials, including a cabinet member, also took place. Those steps reflected executive branch initiatives, but without the previous congressional action in the form of the TTA, such a marked deviation from established U.S. policy would have been far more difficult. Congress, therefore, was a crucial catalyst in strengthening the U.S. diplomatic and military relationship with Taiwan.

That trend has continued unabated. In June 2020, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced the proposed Taiwan Defense Act, which would have required the Department of Defense to submit an annual report to Congress on the progress of the Department of Defense with respect to improving the ability of U.S. forces to conduct combined joint operations with Taipei’s forces to deny China’s ability to execute a military fait accompli against Taiwan. The measure explicitly obligated Washington to “delay, degrade, and ultimately defeat” any PRC attempt to use force against Taiwan. The objectives of Hawley’s bill have been incorporated into the new TIPA.

Understandably, Beijing’s attention has focused primarily on actions that the Trump and Biden administrations have taken. But PRC leaders are missing crucial context if they fail to understand the breadth and depth of congressional support for Taiwan. Sentiment is growing with both Congress and the American people that Taiwan is a plucky democracy now under siege by a would-be authoritarian aggressor. An August 2021 survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that a majority of Americans now favor concluding a formal military alliance between Washington and Taipei. A rising plurality (46 percent) even endorse using the U.S. military to defend the island, if that step becomes necessary. 69 percent also express support for a decision by Washington to recognize Taiwan as an independent country—a step that would almost certainly trigger a military crisis with Beijing. 

Given the nature of public opinion, Congress is likely to propose and push additional measures to support Taiwan. The Biden administration faces a major challenge in deciding how to respond to such pressure, but like the Trump administration, it shows a strong inclination to boost Washington’s diplomatic and security ties with Taipei. Administration officials certainly do not exhibit any signs of defying the tide of congressional and public opinion. Such developments are increasing the chances of a dangerous U.S.-PRC collision over the Taiwan issue. 

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