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Lawmakers walk tightrope on upping Taiwan's diplomatic status as Biden casts doubt on 'ambiguity'

Rachel Oswald, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

TAIPEI, Taiwan — At the heart of the debate between Taiwanese and U.S. policymakers over how best to avert a feared attack by China in the coming years is a question over whether certain diplomatic or military actions the U.S. could take might backfire, with Beijing deciding to speed its timetable for an invasion.

Any such moves would be intended to shore up the fragile status quo along the Taiwan Strait. But stakeholders on both sides of the debate in Taipei and Washington are struggling over how best to safeguard Taiwan’s status as a vibrant democracy. Over a dozen Taiwanese analysts, retired senior military officers, and lawmakers that CQ Roll Call spoke with here over the last month acknowledged an uncertain — and potentially volatile — strategic calculus.

“It is really delicate and sometimes ambiguous,” said Christina Lai, an assistant research fellow at the Institute of Political Science Academia Sinica, about trying to predict how Beijing might respond to various actions the U.S. could take to try bolstering Taiwan without sparking an escalation.

Likewise, U.S. senators are struggling along their own delicate tightrope in trying to find the right balance in a major bipartisan Taiwan policy bill this year. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, with bipartisan support, advanced that measure to the floor, as amended, with backers saying they are optimistic it would significantly aid in re-stabilizing Taiwan-China relations after years of efforts by Beijing to isolate and weaken the self-governing island.

But skeptics warn the bill’s intentions to move the U.S. into the diplomatic and security vacuum that China is trying to create around Taiwan risk a full-fledged war. Such a conflict would be between two nuclear powers, which would serve no side’s interests, least of all the 23 million Taiwanese who could wind up trapped on the island with nowhere to flee.

“We are doing something that is highly provocative and bellicose,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, at last week’s Senate Foreign Relations markup of the Taiwan measure. “I hope it does not make China say, ‘Well, gosh, Taiwan is going to get stronger. Maybe we ought to move now than later.’”

 

Romney voted in favor of the bill, saying he would have liked to see its provisions passed in a more under-the-radar manner, such as through Congress’ annual defense policy bill, which because of its typically massive size offers more opportunities for lawmakers to tuck provisions inside without attracting significant opposition or media attention.

The legislation would authorize $6.5 billion in U.S. taxpayer assistance for Taiwan’s military, plus $2 billion more in loan guarantees to buy U.S. weapons. There is no guarantee Taipei will see all of that money but the fiscal 2023 authorization level of $250 million is likely achievable, according to Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., the lead Senate appropriator for foreign aid programs.

The bill would require the establishment of a comprehensive training program with Taiwan’s military that increases interoperability with the U.S. military, and it recommends the training include contingency tabletop exercises and full-scale military exercises. And it would permit the Pentagon to establish a stockpile of reserve U.S. munitions inside Taiwan that could be used in an emergency.

Additionally, the legislation would require the executive branch to expedite Taiwan’s weapons acquisition requests, while also directing U.S. weapons manufacturers to similarly prioritize Taiwan’s orders.

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