Congress seeks to arm Taiwan quickly as China threat grows

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Mindful of lessons learned from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Congress is pushing to arm and train Taiwan in advance of any potential military attack by China, but whether the aid materializes could depend on President Joe Biden himself.

Deliberations on an unprecedented package of billions of dollars in military assistance to the self-governing island democracy come as Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping meet in Bali on Monday, with maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait a top item of discussion.

The bipartisan effort would enable the U.S. military to dip immediately into its own stocks of weapons such as Javelins and Stingers – something done at this scale only for Ukraine, officials said – and provide weapons for the first time to Taiwan through the foreign military financing program, paid for by the United States.

Through these provisions, Taiwan could receive weapons and equipment such as anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-air defense systems, self-detonating drones, naval mines, command-and-control systems, and secure radios.

The idea is essentially to do for Taipei what is being done for Kyiv – but before the bullets start flying, lawmakers said.

“One of the lessons of Ukraine is that you need to arm your partners before the shooting starts, and that gives you your best chance of avoiding war in the first place,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), a Marine veteran who serves on the House Armed Services Committee.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said in September on a Bloomberg show that it “remains a distinct threat that there could be a military contingency around Taiwan.”

The Democratic leaders of the House and the Senate support the provisions to arm Taipei, but it is not clear that the lawmakers who control the purse strings – the appropriations committees – are convinced of the need to allocate the funds.

Currently, there is no money for this package in the 2023 budget proposal that Congress is working to pass, and if appropriators don’t find cuts to cover the weapons assistance, Biden will have to submit an emergency request to finance the spending for Taiwan and make the case for why it’s necessary, congressional aides say.

Administration officials declined to say whether they would do so.

“Our engagement with Congress has been focused on ensuring that legislation that moves forward is clearly consistent with our policy framework that has helped maintain peace and stability across the [Taiwan] Strait,” said a senior administration official, who like several others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

The assistance package, the details of which are being finalized now in the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, has been crafted with White House input, congressional aides said. It would allow the provision annually to Taiwan of $1 billion worth of stockpiled U.S. munitions – what’s known as “presidential drawdown authority” – and up to $2 billion worth of weapons annually for five years paid for with U.S. tax dollars. Only Israel gets more on an annual basis.

Congressional advocates say the aid would be consistent with the United States’ obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act, which states that it is U.S. policy to provide Taiwan arms to enable its self-defense.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), an Armed Services Committee member, said the goal is to “make the Taiwanese a formidable military force that can defend itself, like the Ukrainians, or at least make it very hard for the People’s Liberation Army to attack them.”

But skeptics question whether the assistance would further Taiwan’s defensive capabilities in the near term.

The proposed assistance comes at a fraught time. China has stepped up provocative military maneuvers in the waters and skies near Taiwan in the wake of an August visit to Taipei by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). It also recently concluded a momentous 20th Communist Party Congress, at which Xi secured an unprecedented third term as party general secretary and consolidated his iron grip on power.

Beijing claims Taiwan as an inalienable part of its territory, and says “peaceful reunification” is its goal. But at last month’s party congress, Xi reiterated the vow to “never commit to abandoning the use of force” toward that end, and said he was willing “to take all necessary measures” to do so.

U.S. military leaders have been warning for years of China’s growing threat to the region. In March 2021, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, then the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, noted during Senate testimony a string of concerning actions taken by China: a rapid and massive military buildup of ships, aircraft and long-range rockets; crackdowns in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet; border clashes with India; and militarization of islands in the disputed South China Sea.

China has long said it wants to achieve great-power status by its centenary in 2049. “Taiwan,” Davidson said in March 2021, “is clearly one of their ambitions before then, and I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.”

His remarks created a stir, with some observers interpreting them to mean China would invade by 2027.

In an interview, Davidson said that while China could mount an attack, there are other ways Beijing could bring pressure to bear on Taiwan. “That could be a blockade, missile barrage, profound cyberattacks on Taiwan infrastructure,” he said. “I do think this is the decade of concern, and I’m still concerned about the next six years.”

Sen. Sullivan, a colonel in the Marine Corps reserve, said a military takeover or blockade of Taiwan by China would result in “enormous” damage to the world economy, particularly as it would affect the global supply chain for computer chips. Taiwan is the world’s leading supplier of advanced chips that power artificial intelligence and supercomputers.

The Biden administration, which is seeking to “responsibly manage” its relationship with Beijing, treads carefully when it comes to Taiwan. When Pelosi planned to travel to Taiwan in August, the Biden administration mounted an intense behind-the-scenes effort, arguing that a visit by such a senior U.S. official so close to the party congress would be seen as provocative and an affront to Beijing. Still, when Xi himself asked Biden to find a way to dissuade her, Biden said he could not oblige, as Congress is an independent branch of government.

Shortly after Pelosi’s visit, Beijing imposed some trade sanctions on Taiwan and stepped up military drills in the waters surrounding the island. It simulated a blockade and sent jets repeatedly across the “center line,” an unofficial barrier in the strait dividing Taiwan and China that for decades was seen as a stabilizing feature – actions that in the view of analysts represent a change by Beijing in the status quo.

Washington followed up by announcing the launch of talks on a formal trade agreement with Taiwan, and in September announced its intention to sell $1.1 billion in arms to Taipei. That package includes Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Such sales, though, generally take several years to be delivered because of larger structural challenges arising out of how foreign military sales are completed.

Some congressional aides say the use of foreign military financing would not speed up the weapons delivery. Others argue that with such a tool, the U.S. government will be able to more quickly negotiate transactions and make decisions about the direction of Taiwan’s defense strategy and how it fits in with U.S. military capabilities.

The advantage to drawdown authority is speed – at least for weapons that are currently in U.S. stockpiles, including shoulder-fired antitank Stingers and anti-ship cruise missiles, said one aide.

A key difference with Ukraine is that Taiwan, being an island, would be harder to resupply in a conflict and essentially can only fight with what it has on hand when a conflict starts. “So surging and stockpiling as many critical munitions to Taiwan – and generally west of the international date line – is our best chance of preserving the peace and making Xi Jinping think twice,” Gallagher said.

Still, the debate over whether to finance the military assistance package is unresolved.

“We need to be clear we have broad support for any new initiative and what the trade-offs will be, especially at a time when senior Republicans are questioning whether we will sustain our support for Ukraine,” said one Democratic lawmaker familiar with ongoing discussions.

Congress traditionally has been more hawkish in its support of Taiwan than presidential administrations. The military assistance was part of a larger bill, the Taiwan Policy Act, that included several symbolic provisions that the Biden team found objectionable and that angered Beijing.

That bill, co-sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and ranking Republican James E. Risch (Idaho), for instance called for designating Taiwan a “major non-NATO ally” for the purpose of expediting arms sales and renaming Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington from the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” to the more official-sounding “Taiwan Representative Office.”

The White House lobbied hard to get those provisions removed or watered down, but, congressional aides said, it provided guidance on the military assistance portion.

“There are elements of that legislation, with respect to how we can strengthen our security assistance to Taiwan, that are quite effective and robust, that will improve Taiwan’s security,” Jake Sullivan told financier David Rubenstein on the Bloomberg show in September. “There are other elements that give us some concern.”

Both parties in Congress have closed ranks on the package amid Beijing’s aggressive military maneuvers. “We are on the final stages of negotiations,” Menendez said. “But authorizing billions alone in military assistance will not be enough. Both Washington and Taipei will need to continue to take steps to ensure that the right capabilities are delivered in a timely fashion.”

The leaders of both chambers voiced confidence the measures would pass. “The Democratic House is committed to helping Taiwan defend itself in the face of aggression from the [People’s Republic of China],” said a Pelosi spokeswoman, Shana Mansbach.

“This legislation will strengthen military cooperation with Taiwan and show that the United States will not stand by as President Xi seeks to isolate and coerce Taiwan,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.

Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said it was grateful for Congress’s efforts to enhance the island’s defenses. Taiwan has committed to military reform in response to China’s aggression, including proposing a record rise in its defense budget for 2023. “It is our responsibility to ensure national security, and only after we can depend upon ourselves can we expect help from others,” ministry spokesman Sun Li-fang said.

Davidson, who retired last year, said that besides continuing to help arm and train Taiwan, the United States needs to strengthen diplomatic, economic and military capabilities in the region. “Our conventional deterrent is eroding,” he said. “The main reason is the staggering growth in China’s air and maritime forces, its rocket forces, its nuclear program, and the development of weapons like hypersonic missiles.”

“If Xi can draw back the curtain and see what the United States looks like out in the region, economically, diplomatically and militarily,” and sees U.S. engagement and a potent military, said Davidson, “he’ll have to say, ‘I don’t want to mess with that,’ and close the curtain. That’s what winning looks like.”