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Lawmakers Game Out a Chinese Attack on Taiwan
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Lawmakers Game Out a Chinese Attack on Taiwan

Plus: GOP leaders forge ahead with their own debt ceiling bill.

Taiwanese soldiers during a drill in September 2021. (Photo by Ceng Shou Yi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Taiwan was under attack, and the United States was forming a response. Would America’s allies join a maximum pressure campaign—financial sanctions and other economic consequences—to punish China for the invasion? A roll of the dice provided the answer: Nope.

That fictional yet realistic scenario played out Wednesday night as members of the House select committee on competition with the Chinese Communist Party participated in a war game about a potential attack on Taiwan. The simulation highlighted ways America should better prepare for such an invasion. But the overarching takeaway for Rep. Mike Gallagher, the chairman of the committee, was the necessity to prevent China from attacking Taiwan in the first place.

“When deterrence fails, nobody wins,” Gallagher told The Dispatch Thursday. “It’s incredibly costly.”

Individual members of Congress occasionally participate in war games, but it is rare to see so many members of a committee—18 in this case—engage in this kind of exercise. In the game, China was able to get about 80,000 troops onto the island, Gallagher said. He argues the two-hour event was a useful departure from other congressional meeting styles. 

“Notwithstanding all the limits of the game and the limits of what you can do in two hours, there was something last night to just having members of Congress standing around a game board in front of a map, having an interactive discussion, asking questions, having there be give-and-take,” Gallagher said. “It fosters a better conversation and intellectual exchange than the traditional hearing format where everybody has their five minutes, they ask their scripted questions, and then they leave.”

One unsurprising lesson from the war game: getting weapons to the island of 23 million people must happen before fighting begins. Resupply efforts have been essential in supporting Ukraine’s defense against Russia, made possible by access to land transportation and Ukraine’s shared border with Poland. That would be far more difficult to pull off for an island facing invasion and a blockade.

A $19 billion backlog in military assistance deliveries to Taiwan, largely due to weapons supply chain woes, has threatened Taiwan’s preparedness. Lawmakers broadly agree on the need to prioritize weapons assistance to Taiwan, and they’ve taken some steps to address the problem. But it’s a hard short-term fix. Congress may include measures in this year’s defense authorization package to further encourage the defense industry to ramp up production.

Gallagher also wants to see more planning on the economic side, especially because China’s massive role in the global economy makes it challenging to sanction.

“I don’t think we have a clear theory of economic and financial deterrence,” he said, noting that much of the world’s sanctions response to Russia’s war in Ukraine was improvised. Even if America maintains its overall policy of strategic ambiguity about if the U.S. military would respond to an attack, “there can be clarity on the economic punishment that would ensue if the CCP made the stupid decision to try and invade Taiwan,” Gallagher said. (For more reporting on this, read our Uphill edition from January that explored the question of sanctioning China in the event of an attack on Taiwan.)

Some lawmakers are skeptical about war games’ usefulness. Connecticut Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the assumptions underlying war games can be entirely wrong. Experts thought Ukraine would fall to Russia in just a matter of days, for example. “These war games often seem to end up as a convenient advertisement for why we need to give the military more funding,” he said.

Congress should give just as much thought to what needs to happen to deter war, Murphy told The Dispatch. “Peace comes through strength, there’s no doubt about it, but you need to make smart tactical decisions along the way to try to create lines of communication and avoid the inevitability of conflict,” he said. “I am not sure that that conversation is happening at the level it needs to.”

Gallagher recognized war games have limits and wants to be clear-eyed about them.

“They really only work if they force you to put yourself inside your opponent’s head and understand their strategic objectives, why they hold them, the costs they are willing to bear to achieve them, and both their best and most likely strategies,” he said. 

The event this week, Gallagher added, wasn’t some kind of neo-conservative fever dream. A member of President Joe Biden’s transition team helped craft the game, with “enthusiastic” input from Democratic members of the select committee. 

“Everyone there was laser-focused on how we prevent war.”

Republicans Ready Debt Ceiling Vote

House Republicans might be able to rally around their leadership’s debt ceiling bill when it comes to a vote next week—but it doesn’t yet have enough support to pass, and many members who do back it are banking on it not actually becoming law.

The party’s wrangling highlights just how hard it is to manage a conference with only five votes to spare. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy hopes the GOP debt ceiling bill will add to the party’s negotiating power and force President Joe Biden to the table ahead of a summer deadline. Republicans see the standoff as one of their few chances to win spending concessions from Democrats in a divided government, but Biden has broadly rejected the idea of pairing GOP priorities with a debt ceiling increase.

The Republican bill would raise the debt ceiling by $1.5 trillion or suspend it until March 2024, whichever comes first. It caps discretionary government spending at fiscal year 2022 levels—but doesn’t specify where those cuts will come from—and limits future spending growth to no more than 1 percent each year for the next decade. It also imposes new work requirements for social safety net programs and repeals a host of green energy and climate-related tax credits while boosting domestic oil and gas drilling.

Some Republicans don’t want to vote for a debt ceiling increase of any kind. Others think the work requirements should be stricter. The bill would mandate a minimum of 80 hours of work per month for Medicaid recipients—20 hours each week—but Rep. Matt Gaetz wants to see that increased to 30 hours per week. Some moderates, meanwhile, are uncomfortable with the expanded work requirements component altogether. And some Republicans are unhappy with the bill’s targeting of green energy tax credits, which has implications for projects in their districts.

GOP leaders are resisting opening the legislation up for changes ahead of next week’s vote. Liam Donovan, a lobbyist at Bracewell LLP and former Republican operative, pointed out on Friday morning that the bill has “absolutely no chance of being enacted,” allowing Republicans who might otherwise oppose it to “safely support the team knowing it’s a tactical measure.”

Will that tactic work? Unclear. For now, the debt ceiling deadline is looming, and the two sides aren’t any closer to a deal.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.