Legislation that would overhaul U.S. policy toward Taiwan easily cleared a powerful Senate committee on Wednesday, the latest chapter in the swift congressional response to China’s increasingly belligerent threats to the self-governing island.
The most comprehensive revamp of U.S.-Taiwan policy in more than four decades came together despite concerns from the White House and some senators in both parties that it risked upending U.S. policy at a time when tensions remain high between Washington and Beijing. Those worries grew acute after Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei prompted an unprecedented response from China’s military.
After a robust and sometimes heated debate, however, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Taiwan Policy Act by a vote of 17-5. The bill, which complements the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, is aimed at boosting Taiwan’s ability to defend itself militarily against a potential Chinese invasion of the island while deepening symbolic U.S.-Taiwan ties that Beijing has blasted as a reversal of the status quo.
“If we hope to have a credible deterrence … we need to be clear-eyed about what we are facing,” said Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who introduced the legislation alongside Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“If we don’t crank up our support for Taiwan, there will be a military offensive” against Taipei, added Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).
Indeed, the prospect of bolstering Taiwan’s defenses and strengthening U.S. ties with the island has united dovish Democrats and hawkish Republicans of late, but especially over the last few years. Some Democrats have even adopted the aggressive view that the U.S. should abandon its long-standing “strategic ambiguity” policy and instead declare that Washington will defend Taipei militarily from an invasion, an approach sometimes referred to as “strategic clarity.”
Senators sought to make clear during Wednesday’s Foreign Relations panel hearing, though, that the bill does not change U.S. policy. Rather, said the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the legislation “gives [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping reasons to think twice about invading Taiwan.”
Among the provisions in the sprawling legislation is a $4.5 billion authorization for direct military assistance. The bill also bolsters Taiwan’s sovereignty when it comes to its membership in international organizations in a way that, according to supporters, does not upend the so-called One China policy — the diplomatic acknowledgment of Beijing’s view that Taiwan is a part of China.
The bill’s path to passage remains murky. Lawmakers could attach parts of it to the annual defense policy bill, which must clear both chambers before the end of the year. And while the legislation incorporated many of the White House’s suggested tweaks, it’s not certain that President Joe Biden would sign it if it reached his desk as a standalone measure.
And it drew fervent bipartisan opposition. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) criticized the proposal as a move toward strategic clarity and a potential reversal of the One China policy.
“This is not a time to radically change long-standing policy … without an appreciation of the consequences that may follow,” Paul said.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who also voted no, said he was concerned that the “symbols of sovereignty” that the U.S. would grant Taiwan make him question “whether we’re getting something out of these provocative judgments” that may “irritate the Chinese.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) agreed with that sentiment, though he ended up supporting the legislation amid acknowledgments that the measure in its entire form likely wouldn’t become law.
“We’re doing something that’s highly provocative and bellicose,” Romney said, suggesting that the legislation would prompt China to move more quickly to invade Taiwan knowing that the U.S. is about to dramatically increase its military support.
Earlier this week, White House spokesperson John Kirby declined to take a position but touted the “deepening [of] our involvement and our support for Taiwan in this administration.” That includes a recent request for congressional approval of a $1.1 billion weapons sale to Taiwan, which POLITICO first reported.