Congressional Initiatives Shifting US Towards Strategic Clarity

Congressional Initiatives Shifting US Towards Strategic Clarity

Congressional Initiatives Shifting US Towards Strategic Clarity

Fundamental changes to Taiwan policy could be coming down the pike if Congress has anything to say about it. In response to China’s increasingly brazen behavior in the wake of COVID-19, the legislative branch is asserting its traditional leadership role in crafting Taiwan policy. Although the Trump administration’s approach to Taiwan—which has featured more robust diplomatic engagement and regular arms sales—has been largely positive, some legislators believe the president should be doing more.

Writing for National Review on May 11, Congressman Mike Gallagher argued, “it is time to end our policy of strategic ambiguity.” In that 40-year-old approach, Washington has intentionally eschewed clarity on the question of whether the United States would intervene in a cross-Strait conflict, thus hoping to deter either side from acting provocatively. But Gallagher understands that in today’s world, the threat to stability in Asia comes not from a Taiwan that is intent on living in peace with its neighbors, but from a Chinese Communist Party intent on bringing its neighbors—especially Taiwan—to heel. “Now is the time for a declaratory statement of policy,” Gallagher writes, “committing the United States to the defense of Taiwan.”

It is difficult—not impossible—to believe that such a statement is likely to come from President Donald Trump. Despite his administration’s commendable record on advancing US-Taiwan relations, the president seems to personally adhere to a view of the world more in line with that of Chinese Politburo member Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪), who once told a Singaporean foreign minister: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries.” Former National Security Advisor John Bolton described the president’s troubling mindset in The Wall Street Journal last month:

Trump was particularly dyspeptic about Taiwan, having listened to Wall Street financiers who had gotten rich off mainland China investments. One of Trump’s favorite comparisons was to point to the tip of one of his Sharpies and say, “This is Taiwan,” then point to the historic Resolute desk in the Oval Office and say, “This is China.”

If this characterization is accurate, it is hard to envision the president explicitly committing the United States to the defense of Taiwan. Even so, that has not stopped Congress from seeking to move the United States in that direction.

The Taiwan Defense Act

On June 11, Senator Josh Hawley introduced the Taiwan Defense Act, with Mike Gallagher introducing a companion bill in the House of Representatives on July 1. The bill’s goal is “to maintain the ability of the United States Armed Forces to deny a fait accompli by the People’s Republic of China against Taiwan.” [1] The legislation describes maintaining that ability as US policy. To that end, the proposed law would require the Department of Defense to issue an annual report, for a period of five years, on the Department’s progress in ensuring “the ability of the United States Armed Forces to conduct combined joint operations to deny the ability of the People’s Republic of China to execute a fait accompli against Taiwan.”

The legislation does not directly address the question of strategic ambiguity, nor does it seek to explicitly commit the United States to come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an attempted invasion. It does contend, however, that the “sense of Congress” is that Taiwan’s fate is “crucially linked to the fates of all countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including to the fate of the United States.” It likewise asserts that the Taiwan Relations Act “requires the United States to maintain the ability to defeat a fait accompli” (emphasis added).

One element of the bill’s reporting requirement is of particular interest. The report must include “an assessment of the manner in which different options for pre-delegating authorities, including authorities relating to kinetic strikes against targets on the mainland of the People’s Republic of China, may improve the ability” of the US military to deny China a fait accompli. In other words, the law seeks to ensure that US forces have the ability to respond quickly to any PRC move against Taiwan, and the bill’s authors envision that such rapid responses could include strikes on Chinese territory.

Were this bill to become law, Congress would be clearly signaling a willingness, if not an intention, to defend Taiwan with force if necessary and to incur risk in doing so. [2] The bill does not do away with strategic ambiguity, but it does attempt to impose some clarity regarding America’s commitment to Taiwan’s defense.

The Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act

The Taiwan Invasion Prevention (TIP) Act, which is being proposed by Rep. Ted Yoho, goes even further. Most notably, it includes an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF):

The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States and take such other measures as the President determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to secure and protect Taiwan against the following:
(1) Direct armed attack by the military forces of the People’s Republic of China against the military forces of Taiwan.
(2) The taking of territory under the effective jurisdiction of Taiwan by the military forces of the People’s Republic of China.
(3) The endangering of the lives of members of the military forces of Taiwan or civilians within the effective jurisdiction of Taiwan in cases in which such members or civilians have been killed or are in imminent danger of being killed.

The AUMF calls to mind the 1955 Formosa Resolution, a joint resolution that authorized President Dwight D. Eisenhower to use force in the defense of Taiwan and the Pescadores. The TIP Act also formally calls for an end to strategic ambiguity and urges the president to “release a public declaration that it is the policy of the United States to secure and protect Taiwan against the actions of the People’s Republic of China” described above.

Although the president arguably already has the constitutional authority to use force to defend Taiwan, this AUMF—if it were to become law—would be significant. In particular, it would clearly telegraph to Beijing that Congress does not intend to oppose armed intervention in the event of hostilities. In other words, it contributes to deterrence by making clear that the politics surrounding a decision on intervention would be less complicated than Beijing might hope, and that Congress is likely to step up in providing needed resources. As with the Taiwan Defense Act, the TIP Act makes strategic ambiguity a bit less ambiguous, even if the administration’s approach has not changed.

Beyond the AUMF, the bill employs other measures to strengthen Taiwan’s security. For instance, it directs the secretary of defense and the secretary of state to launch a multilateral dialogue of “like-minded security partners” to discuss, among other things, “planning for potential military confrontation scenarios.” It likewise directs the secretary of defense to “seek to carry out a program of combined military exercises between the United States, Taiwan, and, if feasible, United States allies and partners.”

Perhaps most interestingly, the bill encourages the defense secretary to reestablish the Taiwan Patrol Force. The Taiwan Patrol Force was a US Navy operation that existed under a variety of names from 1950 until 1979. Sailing out of Keelung or Kaohsiung, one or two US warships regularly patrolled the waters separating China from Taiwan. As the Naval War College’s Bruce Elleman described in his history of the Taiwan Patrol Force, “US Navy ships acted both as a buffer between the two antagonists and as a trip wire in case of aggression.” It is time, the TIP Act suggests, for the US Navy to play that role again. The Navy has conducted semi-regular transits of the Strait of late, but there is something to be said for a constant or near-constant presence. Establishing a “trip wire” is yet another way of taking the ambiguity out of America’s approach to the defense of Taiwan.

The preemptive AUMF may be a non-starter for Republicans and Democrats alike, but to dismiss it out of hand would be a mistake. As long as the current administration and its successors insist on sticking to strategic ambiguity—which arguably contributes to instability in the Strait—Congress will have to get creative in further clarifying the US commitment to Taiwan’s defense.

Congress passed the Formosa Resolution just days after Eisenhower submitted the US-Republic of China (ROC) Mutual Defense Treaty to the Senate for ratification and in the midst of the First Taiwan Strait Crisis, when China was bombarding ROC-held offshore islands. Does Washington really want to wait until Taiwan and China are once again exchanging blows before making clear where American stands?

The main point: Members of Congress are calling on the American president to do away with strategic ambiguity and writing legislation aimed at clarifying the US commitment to Taiwan’s defense.

[1] The bill defines “fait accompli” as “the strategy of the People’s Republic of China designed to allow the People’s Republic of China to use military force to seize control of Taiwan before the United States Armed Forces are able to respond effectively, while simultaneously deterring an effective combined joint response by the United States Armed Forces by convincing the United States that mounting such a response would be prohibitively difficult or costly.”

[2] Watered-down language has been included in the Senate and House versions of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, but the reporting requirement is absent.