A lot can change in two decades.
In 2001, then-Senator Joe Biden denounced President George W. Bush for suggesting he would use American troops to defend Taiwan if it were attacked by China. Administration officials said afterward that American policy had not changed, prompting Biden to write in an op-ed the next week that the longtime approach of “strategic ambiguity” was being replaced with “a policy of ambiguous strategic ambiguity.”
“It is not an improvement,” Biden wrote.
“Ambiguous strategic ambiguity” is now an apt description of Biden’s approach to Taiwan as president. Four times since last summer, the president has said America would come to Taiwan’s defense if attacked by China. Each time, Biden administration officials have claimed American policy has not changed.
Lawmakers and experts aren’t sure if it’s intentional, but they agree overwhelmingly on this: The stakes are high, and incoherent messages from the White House won’t cut it. Taiwan plays a more critical role in the global economy than it did at the turn of the century, while China is displaying increasing belligerence in laying claim to the island of 23 million people.
Biden’s latest remarks were his clearest yet. During a CBS interview over the weekend, he affirmed American forces would defend Taiwan if it came under attack. Asked clearly if that means American men and women would defend the island, Biden answered, “Yes.” His aides once again contradicted the president afterward.
On Monday night, the mixed messages inspired mixed interpretations on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers who back a tougher stance on China claimed victory, arguing Biden’s remarks represent the administration’s true policy. Others who want a cautious Taiwan strategy were visibly pained to be having the conversation. And several Republicans slammed the White House for appearing double-minded on the matter.
“Look, the president has said this not once, not twice, but four times now,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “I guess that’s his feeling, and so much for my friends and colleagues who are concerned about strategic ambiguity. You can’t be more direct than that.”
Menendez has introduced legislation to strengthen America’s approach to Taiwan, including by boosting its defenses and establishing closer diplomatic relations. But that bill has faced resistance from the White House in recent weeks, with officials raising concerns it could undermine America’s existing posture toward Taiwan, which does not recognize the island as a country but allows for unofficial relations. Some Democrats also raised fears an earlier version of the bill walked too far over the line of strategic ambiguity. (Read our coverage on that from last week here.)
Menendez said on Monday he thinks the administration’s pushback to elements of his bill is “crazy” in light of Biden’s remarks.
Biden’s comments, he added, have “certainly got to give pause to Xi Jinping about taking on Taiwan. It just won’t be Taiwan. It will also be the U.S., if the president is true to his word.”
For decades, the American government has upheld “strategic ambiguity” to deter a Chinese attack, not committing to defend the island but keeping its options open. But in recent years the Chinese government has crushed civil liberties in Hong Kong, conducted genocide in Xinjiang, expanded its campaign of repression internationally, and escalated military activities near Taiwan. Some lawmakers and defense experts argue that as the Chinese Communist Party grows more brazen, America’s policy of strategic ambiguity should change too.
This isn’t a neatly partisan debate, with members of Biden’s own party split on the issue.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat and chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, wants to keep strategic ambiguity. He avoided responding directly to Biden’s recent comments but on Monday told The Dispatch the United States should focus “on enabling Taiwan to defend itself.”
Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Mark Warner, meanwhile, said he thinks “there’s been no change in official policy.” But the Virginia Democrat appeared grateful as closing elevator doors shielded him from having to answer follow-up questions.
Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz was more overt about his discomfort: “Where’s my train?” he quipped when I brought up the topic, looking into the distance for the underground Senate train that would ferry him away from reporters. “I’m going to let his statement stand, and of course my vote on the Taiwan Policy Act,” Schatz added, referring to Menendez’s bill.
Schatz opposed the measure when it came forward in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. The bill received several changes to tone down some of the symbolic provisions that officials and some senators feared would be particularly inflammatory, but it retained most substantive provisions and would send a resounding signal of support for Taiwan. It passed the committee with a vote of 17-5, setting it up for consideration on the full Senate floor.
Sen. Chris Murphy, another Democrat who voted against the bill, appeared to play down the impact of Biden’s stance.
“Every president is going to have a preference and a personal view,” said Murphy. “What we know about President Biden is he’s not scared of stating his personal view.” Murphy continued, “Sometimes that surprises pundits, but I think that interview was full of instances in which the president is talking like regular Americans talk, right?”
At this point the interview with Murphy began to sound a lot like congressional Republicans’ defenses of former President Donald Trump early in his presidency: “He thinks we should defend Taiwan. He’s going to say it. That doesn’t sound like a lot of people in Washington, but that’s in fact why he’s a pretty successful political figure.”
Republicans didn’t hold back on criticizing the Biden administration, even as some support doing away with strategic ambiguity.
“There’s little strategic upside to ambiguity,” Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse said in a release. “The President said the right thing: We will defend our ally Taiwan. Now anonymous White House staffers are trying—for at least the third time—to walk it back and say there’s been no change to U.S. policy. Unacceptable. Ron Klain shouldn’t undermine the President, the Taiwanese people, and U.S. interests and leadership.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican who sits on the Foreign Relations panel, said Biden “has been all but incoherent.” Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lamented the “very dangerous” comments.
“On one of the most important foreign policy issues facing the country, facing the world, the president can’t get it right,” said Sullivan. “And it undermines the credibility of the whole country.”
Sullivan brushed off the idea that the Biden team’s mixed signals are deliberate. But if they do represent a shift in Taiwan policy, he would expect the administration to brief Congress.
Murphy, the Connecticut Democrat, said he doesn’t know if the White House’s strategy is intentional “but it certainly adds to the ambiguity to have the president taking one position and the rest of his administration taking another.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we are drawing closer to Taiwan and we are signaling an increased level of support,” Murphy said. “I mean, his comments stand next to a billion-dollar military sales program.” While he doesn’t think “we should move to a defense guarantee or the full recognition of Taiwan,” the senator said “there’s no doubt that our policy is changing.”
Electoral Count Act Debate Heats Up
Lawmakers on each side of the Capitol have proposed two different bills to clear up how presidential election results are certified, aiming to stop the events of January 6, 2021, from repeating. Despite the gaps, members said on Monday they expect to be able to hammer out a compromise version.
“It’s healthy in a democracy, two different versions, and we’re going to be able to work this out,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat whose committee will mark up the Senate version of the bill next week.
We wrote to you in July about the Senate bill, which would limit the vice president to “solely ministerial duties” during the certification of presidential election results. It would also make it more difficult for lawmakers to object to states’ electors, raising the threshold from one member of each chamber to one-fifth of each chamber.
Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Liz Cheney introduced their bill over the weekend, offering more clarity on some key definitions and increasing the threshold for objections even more, to one-third of each chamber. That could become a point of contention with senators.
Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who sponsored the Senate bill, told reporters the 20 percent threshold in the Senate bill “was not plucked out of the air.”
And Sen. Mitt Romney, another cosponsor, said he would look over the details of the House version, but “our proposal, we thought, would be met with the greatest degree of support and actually become law, and not just a message.”
He wants to see action on it soon in the Senate: “If the House has one of their own, we can get into a conference and get this done,” he said. “But there’s no reason to keep delaying.”
The House is set to vote on the Lofgren/Cheney bill as soon as Wednesday.
“The big picture here is that there’s no disagreement about the general idea that courts, rather than state politicians or politicians in Congress, should be making the final decisions about any dispute about who the validly appointed electors are,” Matthew Seligman, an attorney and election law expert, told The Dispatch.
He noted the House bill defines catastrophic events that could prolong a voting period, and it requires that those exceptions would have to come by order of a federal court and at the request of a presidential candidate on the ballot. This would limit the potential for abuse by state politicians.
Seligman also pointed out the House bill has a more fulsome attempt to deal with the threat of rogue governors refusing to submit proper slates of electors, which he believes is “the gravest risk posed by the existing Electoral Count Act.” The House legislation outlines a process by which courts can designate another state official to submit the slate of electors if a governor defies a court order.
The bill also presents new guardrails for Congress beyond raising the threshold for members to object to election results. It would enumerate the instances in which objections are valid. These include constitutional problems presented by candidates themselves—like not meeting age requirements—or if a state submits more electoral votes than it has been apportioned, among other scenarios. This would clarify and explicitly limit Congress’ role in certifying election results.
Seligman said in comparison, the difference between the House and Senate bills’ objection thresholds—one-third or one-fifth of each chamber—“matters almost not at all.”
“It serves as a gateway to prevent political grandstanding,” he added. “We saw, unfortunately on January 6 of 2021, that there can be a high price to political grandstanding when there’s a violent mob involved. But at the end of the day, the objection threshold never changes the outcome.”
A majority of Congress is required to overturn election results.
The House Rules Committee will debate the Lofgren/Cheney bill this afternoon, offering a preview of how leading Republicans may vote.
Even as lawmakers try to shore up how votes are certified, they’re uneasy about the big picture. Sen. Brian Schatz, the Hawaii Democrat, emphasized that Congress needs to “wrap our minds around the fact that you can’t reverse-engineer for the last coup attempt.”
“The real problem for American-style democracy is that there are people who are promising to overturn the next election if their candidate doesn’t win,” he said. “And that’s not something you can legislate away. And so while I don’t necessarily oppose any individual provision, I feel like we may be missing what’s actually going on. And, you know, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
On the Floor
The House will consider the Electoral Count Act reform bill, with a vote expected Wednesday. A full list of bills the House may debate this week is available here.
Officials from the Treasury and Justice departments appeared before the Senate banking panel this morning for a hearing on increasing economic pressure on Russia amid its war in Ukraine. Information and video here.
Senators will hold a hearing this afternoon on uncounted deaths in prisons. Family members of people who died in prison will testify, followed by officials from the Department of Justice. Information and livestream here.
The House Rules Committee will meet this afternoon to debate the Presidential Election Reform Act, sponsored by Reps. Liz Cheney and Zoe Lofgren to reform how Congress certifies election results. Information and livestream here.
State and local officials from Delaware, Arizona, and West Virginia are slated to appear before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday morning for a hearing on last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law. Information and livestream here.
The House Homeland Security Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning on critical infrastructure preparedness, with a focus on water resources. Information and livestream here.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hear from two women—Rosa Maria Paya Acevedo, founder of Cuba Decide, and Jewher Ilham, a prominent Uyghur rights advocate—about countering authoritarianism during a hearing on Wednesday afternoon. Information and livestream here.