Good morning. Both chambers of Congress are still out on August recess, so it’s quiet at the Capitol. But we managed to catch up with one lawmaker about an important topic: Taiwan. Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat, recently returned from a congressional trip to the self-governed, democratic island. He spoke with The Dispatch about the visit in a phone interview Monday.
Beyer is chairman of the Joint Economic Committee. He also sits on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and chairs the House subcommittee that deals with space. (You may remember him from our space-themed Q&A earlier this year.) This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Haley: Was there anything on your trip to Taiwan that surprised you, or that will stick with you?
Rep. Beyer: Well, there’s a lot of things that surprised me just because I’ve been paying attention from far away for a long time. But when we actually got there, the first impression was, “Oh my God, I’ve never seen so many skyscrapers in my life.” I thought I was flying over a more developed Manhattan. And I was very impressed with how First World it was, which I don’t think I’d really expected. And then the meeting with President Tsai was wonderful—you know, not tremendously substantive, but very warm. We had a meeting with eight to 10 members of the parliament who seemed to represent seven or eight different parties. That was really interesting because they came at the issues of strategic ambiguity and strategic clarity from a variety of different perspectives. But all of them seemed very grateful that we were there, especially after [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s] visit, because China had ratcheted up its saber-rattling.
Haley: Can you tell me anything about what you discussed during that meeting with President Tsai?
Rep. Beyer: It was just welcoming. She was glad that we were there. There was no specific strategic or legislative piece of it. There was more discussion later with the members of parliament about the new economic framework that the president announced, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, and [U.S. Trade Representative] Katherine Tai reaching out to do Taiwan trade talks, which I think they’re really excited about. And interestingly, they were pleased with our CHIPS bill. I thought maybe they’d feel a little threatened by that since they’re our primary supplier of semiconductor chips. But they seem to be interested in investing in U.S. chip manufacturing. So it was complementary rather than competitive.
Haley: You were there as China’s military drills were, I think, starting to wind down at that point, but it was still definitely escalated.
Rep. Beyer: They were still definitely there. Still talking about it every day.
Haley: Did you get the sense from your conversations that Taiwan is ready to defend itself? Did they sort of make the case that Congress needed to do anything with regard to Taiwan?
Rep. Beyer: They didn’t, at least not to me. There were no specific asks in terms of a NATO-like alliance or more weapons. Their singular plea was to try to maintain the status quo. They felt it had worked for decades and decades, and they did not want to provoke China. They don’t want an armed invasion. I don’t think they particularly wanted us to have to respond to an armed invasion, either. One of the most interesting phrases I heard there, because we—especially with the parliamentarians—went back and forth on the debate in America about strategic ambiguity versus strategic clarity. And the One China policy versus the One China principle. One of the parliamentarians said, ‘What we really need is strategic clarity, but tactical ambiguity.’ You know, make it clear that we want Taiwan to have self-determination and preserve the status quo, but we necessarily have to be ambiguous about how the U.S. would respond. But at the same time, we had military briefings in Japan and Guam and Anchorage and in Hawaii, at least four, along the way. And in every case, the focus was a newly militarized, resurgent China that wasn’t focusing so much on its own internal economic growth, but rather on projecting its will around the world. A very different type of international competitor than what we’ve been used to the last 20 years.
Haley: Some lawmakers have been calling for closer relations with Taiwan, and there’s a bunch of different bills. There’s a sort of comprehensive one in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Bob Menendez. It includes money for security assistance and changing verbiage like the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in D.C. to the Taiwan Representative Office, some symbolic but still big changes that might make China angry but would generally pave the way for closer relations with Taiwan. Have you read anything about that bill? Do you have any thoughts on it?
Rep. Beyer: I have, and I haven’t taken a position on it. The tightrope is we certainly don’t want to provoke China, but at the same time, I think it’s really important that we’ll be most successful at deterring any kinds of Chinese aggression by making it clear that we are doing all that we can to support Taiwan’s current status and the people of Taiwan. And so if that means additional military sales and trade agreements, I think that’s certainly very plausible. We’ve been doing that little by little by little as it goes anyway. Exactly where you draw that line might be above my pay grade, but worthy of a lot of debate as we move forward. I hate to be vague. I don’t don’t mean to be vague, but we want to be as firmly supportive of Taiwan as we can be, but at the same time, we don’t want to force China to act. You know, is this the difference between deterrence and provocation? … Part of what we have to do is do our best to understand the Chinese thinking and to maintain those lines of communication between Biden and Xi and others. We’re not looking for a cold war or a hot war with China. But we do want to restrict unnecessary ambitions and hegemonic instincts.
Haley: You’ve mentioned this a couple of times, and I want to drill down on it. There’s a debate on Capitol Hill and in think tank circles—it sounds like you discussed it with some of the members of parliament there—about strategic ambiguity and whether America should clearly say, “We will help defend Taiwan if it is attacked by China.” Do you agree with that? Do you think America should come out and say that? Or do you think that ambiguity is still necessary?
Rep. Beyer: If you give me permission to change my mind as the world evolves. For the moment, I think our strategic ambiguity has worked well for a long time. And in many ways, the Russia-Ukraine war—the way the world has responded to it under our leadership in the enormous economic sanctions, for example—it points out that there are ways of deterring Chinese aggression without having to send 20,000 Marines or F-35s. Having that ambiguity, that uncertainty, probably is helpful. … They can pay an enormous penalty without having to exchange weapon fire. And this is especially true; for the first time since the early ‘60s, our economy is growing faster than theirs.
Haley: In responding to the war in Ukraine, there were sort of some political hurdles to a lot of the sanctions on Russia. It’s almost a question of—especially you see this in Germany and places that are dependent on Russia—it’s a question of willpower. So you mention that we have these tools available to us if China attacks Taiwan, but do we have the willpower to take those punitive economic measures?
Rep. Beyer: I would think so. In many ways, they might be easier than Russia. Russia has oil, coal, and natural gas to hold over the heads of much of Europe and Israel and the like. China does not have that. They have a lot of consumer goods that they sell to the rest of the world. So it might be easier. Also China, from what I understand, their diplomacy tends to be rough. They’re good at spreading money around to, say, the African countries and some in central America and the like, but they don’t do it in a way that necessarily makes friends. You know, sort of trying to buy loyalty because they can’t do it with their values. They can’t hold out the prospect of the American dream, which is so attractive to people around the world. Self-determination and freedom and democracy, but they can’t do any of that. The promise of autocracy doesn’t really work very well.