Congress seeks to arm Taiwan quickly as China threat grows

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Remembering the lessons learned from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Congress is pushing to arm and train Taiwan ahead of any possible military attack by China, but whether that help materializes could depend on President Biden himself.

Talks on an unprecedented package of billions of dollars in military aid 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 the main item of discussion.

The bipartisan effort would allow the US military to immediately dip into its own stockpiles of weapons such as Javelins and Stingers – something done on this scale only for Ukraine, officials said – and provide weapons for now first to Taiwan through the foreign military financing program. , which was 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-propelled drones, naval mines, command and control systems, and secure radios.

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

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

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

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Democratic leaders of the House and 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 money.

Currently, there is no money for this package in the 2023 budget proposal that Congress is working to pass, and if owners do not find cuts to pay for the weapons assistance, they will have to for Biden to submit an emergency request to fund the spending for Taiwan and make the case for why it is necessary, congressional aides say.

Administration officials declined to say whether they would do so.

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

The aid package, the details of which are now being finalized in the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act, has been crafted with input from the White House, congressional aides said. It would allow the provision of $1 billion worth of stockpiled US munitions annually to Taiwan – the so-called “presidential drawdown authority” – and up to $2 billion worth of weapons annually for five years the they are paid for with US tax dollars. Only Israel gets more annually.

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

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

But skeptics question whether the aid would advance Taiwan’s defensive capabilities in the near term.

The proposed aid comes at a difficult time. China has increased provocative military maneuvers in the waters and air near Taiwan following an August visit to Taipei by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). It also recently concluded the landmark 20th Congress of the Communist Party, where Xi secured an unprecedented third term as party general secretary and cemented his iron grip on power.

Beijing claims that Taiwan is an indisputable part of its territory, and says its goal is “peaceful reunification”. But at the party congress last month, Xi reiterated the pledge to “never commit to giving up the use of force” towards that end, and said he was prepared “to take all necessary measures” to do so. .

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US military leaders have been warning for years about China’s growing threat to the region. In March 2021, Admiral Philip S. Davidson, then head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, noted during Senate testimony a series of worrying steps taken by China: a rapid and massive military build-up of ships, planes and long-range rockets; conflicts in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet; border conflict with India; and the militarization of islands in the disputed South China Sea.

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

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

In an interview, Davidson said that while China could attack, there are other ways Beijing could put pressure on Taiwan. “That could be a barrier, a missile barrage, intense cyber-attacks on Taiwan’s infrastructure,” he said. “I think this is a decade of worry, and I’m still worried about the next six years.”

Sen Sullivan, a colonel in the Marine Corps reserve, said a military occupation 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.

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The Biden administration, which is trying to “responsibly manage” its relationship with Beijing, is treading carefully when it comes to Taiwan. When Pelosi planned to travel to Taiwan in August, the Biden administration mounted an intense push behind the scenes, arguing that a visit by a senior US official so close to the party’s convention would be seen as provocative. and a causeway to Beijing. Still, when Xi himself asked Biden to find a way to convince him, 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 increased military drills in the waters surrounding the island. He simulated a blockade and repeatedly sent jets across the “middle line,” an unofficial barrier in the strait dividing Taiwan and China that for decades was seen as a stabilizing feature – actions that analysts say represent a shift by Beijing. in the status quo.

Washington followed 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. However, such sales generally take several years to complete due to greater structural challenges arising from the way foreign military sales are completed.

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Some congressional aides say using foreign military funding would not speed up arms deliveries. Others argue that with such an instrument, the US government will be able to negotiate deals more quickly and make decisions about the direction of Taiwan’s defense strategy and how it aligns with US military capabilities.

The advantage to a takedown authority is speed — at least for weapons currently in US stockpiles, including shoulder-mounted antitank Stingers and anti-ship cruise missiles, one aide said.

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

Still, the debate over whether to fund the military aid package remains unresolved.

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

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

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That bill, co-sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (DNJ.) and Republican Rep. James E. Risch (Idaho), for example called for Taiwan to be designated a “major non-NATO ally” for the purpose of speeding up 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 remove or weaken those provisions, but, congressional aides said, it provided guidance on the military aid portion.

“There are elements of that legislation, in terms of 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 the month of 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 moves. “We are in the final stages of negotiations,” Menendez said. “But just authorizing billions in military aid will not be enough. Washington and Taipei will need to continue to take steps to ensure that the right capabilities are delivered in a timely manner. “

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

“This legislation will strengthen military cooperation with Taiwan and demonstrate that the United States will not stand by as President Xi seeks to isolate and coerce Taiwan,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DNY ).

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

Davidson, who retired last year, said that apart from continuing to help arm and train Taiwan, the US needs to strengthen diplomatic, economic and military capabilities in the region. “Our conventional deterrence is eroding,” he said. “The main reason is the staggering growth of China’s air and naval forces, its rocket forces, its nuclear program, and the development of weapons such as hypersonic missiles.”

“If Xi can pull back the curtain and see what the US looks like out in the region, economically, diplomatically and militarily,” and see US engagement and a strong military, Davidson said, “it will he has to say, ‘I don’t want to mess with that,’ and close the curtain. That’s what winning looks like.”

Christian Shepherd and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.

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