The TRA’s 45th Anniversary: Is Biden True to the Congressional Script on Taiwan’s Self-Defense?

The TRA’s 45th Anniversary: Is Biden True to the Congressional Script on Taiwan’s Self-Defense?

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The TRA’s 45th Anniversary: Is Biden True to the Congressional Script on Taiwan’s Self-Defense?

It is more important to have clarity about the US Congressional intent than to argue about “strategic ambiguity” in marking 45 years since President and then-Senator Joseph Biden and other members of Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) (Public Law 96-8) in April 1979. As if uniquely cast as a main actor in the movie of the TRA’s story, has Biden’s delivery of his lines stayed true to the Congressional script that he also approved? Did he ad lib? Knowing the vision behind the script, Biden has declared US support to help defend Taiwan against China. However, the strong delivery of policy lines also needs to convey to audiences the intent of congressional decision-making, sustained support for Taiwan (not abandonment), as well as strategic rationale, objective, and scope (covering coercion and force, while not covering Kinmen and Matsu). Upon inauguration on May 20, the Republic of China (Taiwan)’s President-elect Lai Ching-te (賴清德) should be ready as another leading actor.

Clarity about Intent

Clarity about the TRA’s intent is important, because the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to provoke tensions, while Taiwan, the US, and allies enhance their multilateral responses. Clarity disarms the PRC’s political warfare that targets Taiwan’s confidence, because the TRA reinforces that there has not been abandonment. Clarity is key to ensure that policy has institutional compliance with the TRA—not based on whims—no matter who is the US president. Even if authentically consistent with the TRA, Biden needs to add to his lines that go big in declaring US help for Taiwan’s defense against the PRC.

Lester Wolff (D-NY) was a member of the House of Representatives who managed the legislation as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs. He explained in interviews with me up to 2019 that the intent of Congress remains important because of the TRA’s deliberate ambiguity.

Biden was Later Cast as Key Actor

If the TRA is like a movie script, its Congressional writers did not know that then-Senator Biden, who approved the legislation, would be later cast as a key actor as president. Biden delivered lines in a scene in 2000, concerning Senate Concurrent Resolution 99 to congratulate Taiwan’s people on their presidential election held on March 18, 2000. He meaningfully conveyed that Taiwan is responsible for its conditions and well-being, while the US plays a supporting role. He stated, “Taiwan’s people are responsible for the island’s miraculous transformation from authoritarian rule and poverty to democracy and prosperity. […] If Taiwan wins the Oscar for Best Actor, then we at least get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The United States commitment to Taiwan’s security under the terms of the Taiwan Relations Act helped create the stable environment under which Taiwan has thrived.” [1]

This view of the US supporting role is consistent with the TRA’s language on security, which has expected Taiwan to maintain its self-defense. Section 3(a) stipulated that the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.

Washington’s Strong Supporting Role

Washington still plays a strong supporting role. First, Biden is not using the past broken presidential process of “packages” that delayed multiple pending arms sales by withholding notifications to Congress until one single day. The president has proposed regularly to Congress to offer to Taiwan some foreign military sales (FMS) worth annual totals of USD $750 million in 2021, USD $2.137 billion in 2022, and USD $1.859 billion in 2023. [2]

Second, Biden’s strong delivery of lines about US help for Taiwan’s self-defense is important for deterrence against China’s threats. The PRC needs to know that its strategic goal of “national rejuvenation” will fail, if it attacks and attempts to annex Taiwan (not so-called “reunification”).

Despite the lack of a defense treaty with Taiwan, Biden compared it with allies in an interview in August 2021. He said, “we made a sacred commitment to Article 5 that if in fact anyone were to invade or take action against our NATO allies, we would respond. Same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”

At a CNN town hall in October 2021, Biden answered a question about whether the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense if it was attacked by China. He replied, “yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

Visiting Tokyo on May 23, 2022, Biden remarked that the United States supports our “One-China Policy.” But he added, “it does not mean that China has […] the jurisdiction to go in and use force to take over Taiwan. So we stand firmly with Japan and with other nations that—not to let that happen. And my expectation is it will not happen; it will not be attempted.” A reporter then asked about how Biden did not want to get involved in the Ukraine conflict militarily and whether he would be willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan. Biden clearly answered, “yes,” adding “that’s the commitment we made.”

Despite that strong statement, Biden did not explain on the next day. A reporter asked, “is the policy of strategic ambiguity towards Taiwan dead?” Biden said “no,” and refused to explain.

On the CBS news program 60 Minutes in September 2022, a correspondent asked Biden whether US military forces would defend Taiwan? He replied, “yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.” Following up, the correspondent asked, “so, unlike Ukraine, to be clear, sir, US forces, US men and women, would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?” The president answered unequivocally, “yes.” After the interview, CBS quoted an unnamed White House official as saying that policy has not changed. The CBS story asserted that the policy remains “strategic ambiguity” in regard to US forces defending Taiwan.

Gaps, Not Gaffes 

The issue is not whether the president did ad lib or did change policy. Biden has the unique role as president—who voted for the TRA as a senator—to declare authoritatively that the US would help Taiwan’s defense against China’s attack. Nonetheless, he does need to explain.

Biden’s statements have gaps, not gaffes. As discussed below, first, he should explain how presidential decisions still must have congressional approval. Second, he needs to convey the strategic rationale and objective to audiences in the United States, Taiwan, US allies, and China. Third, he can note the TRA’s parameters.

Congressional Approval

Three points are important to understand Congressional intent, based on Wolff’s view. First, the TRA was an act for Congress to re-assert its power amid an uproar after “President Carter, without warning, gave Congress and its relevant members just one hour of notification that he was establishing diplomatic relations with China [and] abrogating our long time alliance with Taiwan.” Second, members passed the TRA to overcome deficiencies in Carter’s legislative request to support Taiwan’s security. Third, the TRA has survived as a successful law because of its built-in ambiguity to adapt to current conditions. [3]

While the TRA provided for an obligation to assist Taiwan’s self-defense, the law did not require in advance that the United States “shall” help to defend Taiwan. Section 2(b)(6) stipulated that it is policy to maintain the US capacity to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of people on Taiwan.

Nonetheless, Congress did not intend necessarily to avoid helping to defend Taiwan. According to Wolff, the TRA is not a guarantee for Taiwan’s defense, because Congress intended to subject any future decision regarding war to action by Congress, not only by the president.

Section 3(c) stipulated that the president is directed to inform the Congress promptly of any threat to the security or the social or economic system of the people on Taiwan and any danger to the interests of the United States arising therefrom. The president and Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger. However, President Clinton did not act under this section in March 1996.

Strategic Objective

Biden needs to explain a coherent strategic objective and rationale for his lines. Officials refer to the process (peaceful resolution) but avoid stating any preferred outcome. A goal would enable whole-of-government planning. Wolff explained that the congressional intent was to protect Taiwan’s integrity and its people’s ability to govern themselves.

strategic review would help more than arguing about “strategic ambiguity.” The strategic goal should be a strong and democratic Taiwan, so that it deters the PRC, remains a force for freedom in the global balance of power, and survives as a legitimate member in the international community. Taiwan’s geo-strategic position places it as the inter-locking piece to fortify US allies and to support US and allied interests in the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, South China Sea, and Western Pacific.

Intended Parameters

Congress considered broad threats. Section 2(b)(6) cited coercion as well as force, because China could apply an embargo or other forms of coercion short of military force. While Congress intended the TRA to cover threats broader than use of force, Congress applied parameters for the geographical coverage of Taiwan’s security.

Regardless of who won Taiwan’s presidential election on January 13, the PRC was expected to continue to raise cross-strait tensions. An incident on February 14 near Kinmen (a Taiwan-controlled island) involved a collision between a Taiwanese Coast Guard patrol boat and an unregistered PRC speedboat, resulting in the deaths of two crew members when that speedboat capsized. Since the incident, the PRC has expanded its attempts to change the status quo by sailing its Coast Guard and other vessels to not only Kinmen but also Matsu, another Taiwan-controlled island. The number of such PRC vessels sailing near the two islands increased to as many as 19 on February 21. [4] On February 19, personnel from two PRC Coast Guard ships even boarded and inspected a Taiwanese tour boat near Kinmen.

The TRA does not cover the offshore islands close to China. As Section 15(2) defined the term, “Taiwan” includes the islands of Taiwan and Pescadores (Penghu Islands) plus the people, entities, and governing authorities.

Representative Clement Zablocki, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, explained that his committee excluded Quemoy (Kinmen) and Matsu from the definition. He noted that these islands had been “deliberately left out of the mutual defense treaty,” and “we should not be expanding the US security commitment beyond what was in the treaty.” He concluded that “as far as the reference in the committee report is concerned, it does not extend our security commitment in its referral to Quemoy and Matsu.” [5]

Nonetheless, the US Coast Guard could cooperate more with Taiwan’s Coast Guard near those islands, based on a 2021 memorandum of understanding. The top leader of the US Coast Guard knows about Taiwan’s situation.

President Lai as Leading Actor

With the US supporting role, Taiwan has the lead in its story to strengthen diplomacy and defense. Upon taking the stage on May 20, Harvard-educated President-elect Lai should be ready to be a leading actor by delivering his inaugural lines in Taiwanese, Mandarin, and English; changing representatives at Taiwan’s offices in the United States; fortifying Taiwan’s deterrent capabilities; and securing a longer line of presidential succession for continuity of government and military command. As vice president, Lai should know the succession line’s limitation.

The main point: Knowing the vision behind the TRA’s script, Biden has delivered strong lines on US support to help Taiwan’s self-defense. However, he needs to explain more in his unique role.

[1] Lester Wolff, Jon Holstine, and John Brady III (editors), A Legislative History of the Taiwan Relations Act, Vol. 4, Pacific Community Institute, March 2004, p. 208.

[2] Author’s tracking of FMS to Taiwan, since writing CRS Report for Congress, Taiwan: Major US Arms Sales Since 1990 (regularly updated up to January 5, 2015).

[3] Lester Wolff, The Legislative Intent of the Taiwan Relations Act: A Dilemma Wrapped in an Enigma, 2020.

[4] Author’s interview with Taiwanese official, March 11, 2024. 

[5] Shirley Kan, China/Taiwan: Evolution of the One ChinaPolicy—Key Statements from Washington, Beijing, and Taipei (regularly updated up to January 5, 2015); and Lester Wolff and David Simon, Legislative History of the Taiwan Relations Act, New York: American Association for Chinese Studies, 1982.