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 moving to arm and train Taiwan in advance of any possible military attack by China, but whether the assistance is possible may depend on President Biden himself.

Talks about an unprecedented multibillion-dollar military aid package for the 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 first topic of discussion.

The bipartisan effort would allow the U.S. military to quickly dip into its stockpile of weapons such as Javelins and Stingers — something that is only being done on a scale in Ukraine, officials said — and provide the weapons for the first time to Taiwan through a foreign military sponsorship program, for a fee. because of the United States.

Through these provisions, Taiwan can acquire weapons such as anti-ship missiles and air defense systems, self-propelled drones, sea mines, command and control systems and secure radios.

The idea is to do for Taipei what was done for Kyiv – but before the bullets start flying, law enforcement officials 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 former Marine who serves on the armed services committee.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said in September on Bloomberg TV that “there is still a distinct threat that there could be a military situation in 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 funds.

There is currently no money for this package in the 2023 budget proposal that Congress is working to pass, and if suppliers do not receive compensation to cover arms assistance, Biden will have to send an emergency request to finance the use of Taiwan. case for why it is necessary, congressional aides said.

Administration officials declined to say whether they would do so.

“Our discussions with Congress focused on ensuring that the legislation moving forward is clearly consistent with our policy framework that has helped maintain peace and stability throughout the country. [Taiwan] Strait,” said a senior administration official, like many others who did not want to be named because the matter is sensitive.

The aid package, the details of which are now being finalized in the National Defense Authorization Act, was made at the behest of the White House, congressional aides said. It would allow the annual supply to Taiwan of up to $1 billion worth of stockpiled U.S. weapons — what’s known as the “presidential drawdown authority” — and up to $2 billion in weapons annually for five years paid for with U.S. tax dollars. Only Israel receives more per year.

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Congressional lawyers said the aid would be consistent with the United States’ obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act, which states that it is US policy to provide Taiwan with weapons for self-defense.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), a member of the armed services committee, said the goal is to “make the Taiwanese a formidable military that can defend themselves, like the Ukrainians, or at least make it more difficult for the People’s Liberation Army.” to attack them.”

But skeptics question whether the aid will boost Taiwan’s defense capabilities in the near term.

The proposed aid comes at a critical time. China has stepped up provocative military tactics in the waters and airspace near Taiwan after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) visit in August to Taipei. It also concluded the 20th Communist Party Congress, where Xi won an unprecedented third term as party general secretary and consolidated his iron grip on power.

Beijing says Taiwan is an inalienable part of its territory, and says “peaceful reunification” is its goal. But at last month’s party conference, Xi reiterated a vow that he would “not commit to stop using force” to achieve that, saying he was willing to “take all necessary measures” to do so.

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US military leaders have for years warned of China’s growing threat to the region. In March 2021, the former head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, testifying before the Senate, noted a series of actions taken by China: a rapid and massive military build-up of ships, aircraft and various long-range rockets; ruptures in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet; border conflict with India; and the military construction of islands in the South China Sea.

China has long said it wants to achieve superpower status by 2049. “Taiwan,” Davidson said in March 2021, “is obviously one of their ambitions before that, and I think the threat is evident during this decade, in fact, the next six years.”

His words caused a stir, some observers interpreted them as saying that China will enter in 2027.

In the interview, Davidson said that although China can attack, there are other ways Beijing can put pressure on Taiwan. “That would be a blockade, a missile attack, a deep cyberattack 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 takeover or blockade of Taiwan by China would lead to “huge” damage to the global economy, especially as it would affect the global supply chain of computer chips. Taiwan is the world’s leading supplier of advanced chips that power artificial intelligence and supercomputers.

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The administration, which wants 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 put in a lot of effort behind the scenes, saying that a visit by an American official so close to the party’s summit would be seen as provocative and undermining Beijing. However, when Xi himself asked Biden to find a way to stop him, Biden said he could not force it, as Congress is an independent branch of government.

Shortly after Pelosi’s visit, Beijing sanctioned its trade with Taiwan and increased military training in the waters surrounding the island. It simulated the blockade and repeatedly sent the jets across the “central line,” an illegal barrier on the road separating Taiwan from mainland China that for decades was seen as a stabilizing factor – actions that, according to analysts, represent a change by Beijing to the status quo.

Washington followed by announcing the launch of negotiations on a formal trade agreement with Taiwan, and in September announced its intention to sell $1.1 billion worth of weapons to Taipei. That package includes Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Such sales, however, often take several years to deliver due to major structural challenges posed by how foreign military sales are completed.

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Some congressional aides say the use of foreign military funds will not speed up the delivery of weapons. Some argue that with such a tool, the US government will be able to quickly negotiate deals and make decisions about the direction of Taiwan’s defense strategy and how it interacts with US military power.

The benefit of slowing down is speed — at least the weapons the US currently maintains, including shoulder-fired antitank Stingers and anti-ship missiles, one aide said.

The key difference with Ukraine is that Taiwan, being an island, would be hard pressed to re-offend in a conflict and would actually fight with what it has when a conflict starts. “The proliferation and accumulation of more critical weapons in Taiwan – and generally west of the international date line – is our best chance to preserve peace and make Xi Jinping think twice,” Gallagher said.

However, the debate over whether the military aid fund is funded remains unresolved.

“We need to make it clear that we are broadly supportive of any new plan and what the trade-offs will be, especially at a time when Republicans are asking whether we will support Ukraine,” said one Democratic Alliance lawmaker familiar with the ongoing negotiations. .

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

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That bill, sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (DN.J.) and Rep. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), for example called for Taiwan to be designated a “non-NATO ally” for this purpose. to expedite arms sales and to rename Taiwan’s embassy in Washington from the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” to the more official-sounding “Taiwan Representative Office”.

The White House has pushed hard to have those provisions removed or scaled back, but, congressional aides say, it has provided guidance on part of the military aid.

“There are elements of that legislation about how we can strengthen our security assistance to Taiwan that is effective and robust, that will improve Taiwan’s security,” Jake Sullivan told economist David Rubenstein on a Bloomberg podcast in September. “There are other factors that concern us.”

Beijing’s aggressive military offensive has served to close bipartisan positions in Congress in the pocket. “We are in the final stages of negotiations,” said Menendez. “But approving billions in military aid alone will not be enough. Both Washington and Taipei will need to continue to take steps to ensure that the relevant capabilities are delivered in a timely manner. “

The leaders of both chambers expressed confidence that these measures will pass. “The Democratic House is committed to helping Taiwan defend itself against aggression from the government [People’s Republic of China],” said Pelosi’s spokesperson, 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,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense said it appreciates Congress’s efforts to improve the island’s defense. “It is our responsibility to ensure the country’s security, and only after we rely on ourselves, can we expect help from others,” said spokesman Sun Li-fang.

Davidson, who retired last year, said that in addition to continuing to provide arms and training to Taiwan, the United States needs to strengthen diplomatic, economic and military capabilities in the region. “Our traditional barrier is being eroded,” he said. “The main reason is the dramatic 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 United States looks like regionally, economically, diplomatically and militarily” and see the US’s involvement and military might, Davidson said, “he’s going to have to say, ‘I don’t want to. I want to mess with that,'” close the curtain. It looks like winning like that.”

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

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