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Senators Gear Up for Taiwan Policy Debate
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Senators Gear Up for Taiwan Policy Debate

The bill's symbolic components have come into question amid high tensions with China.

It was a historically tense summer in the Taiwan Strait, featuring high-profile congressional visits and aggressive military drills by Chinese forces. For lawmakers, it underscored the urgency of arming Taiwan to defend itself—and just how delicate the situation is.

Senators from both parties have advocated legislation this year to upgrade Taiwan’s defenses—and its relationship with the United States—and they remain largely unified in pursuing it. Yet pushback from the Biden administration and caution among lawmakers means a revised version of the bill may be scaled back from the original.

Specific concerns vary from senator to senator, but interviews with lawmakers this week and a slate of proposed amendments reviewed by The Dispatch reveal an overarching theme: Some Democrats fear the symbolic elements of Sen. Bob Menendez’s Taiwan Policy Act could be inflammatory at a time when Taiwan isn’t prepared to defend itself from a Chinese invasion. 

The items most in question would heighten America’s official stance toward Taiwan and boost its diplomatic institutions. These include provisions like designating the self-governing, democratic island a major non-NATO ally and renaming its de facto embassy in Washington, D.C., from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) to the Taiwan Representative Office. It is unclear if those components will remain in the bill, but they were two of the sections most targeted for removal or changes in Democratic amendments obtained by The Dispatch.

Senators will debate the legislation Wednesday during a previously delayed meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Menendez chairs. The talks have also unfolded at the staff level for the past month. One aide familiar with the situation said negotiations on a new version of the bill are expected to continue until the last minute before the mark-up, with the aim of incorporating as many senators’ requests as possible. The legislation is shaping up to reflect those concerns in some ways, the aide said, including by removing or tweaking some of the most controversial language.

The revisions come after senior Biden administration officials expressed opposition to aspects of the bill publicly and in private meetings with senators in recent weeks.

Senators may differ on just how far to go with symbolic measures supporting Taiwan, but they broadly agree on massive increases in military support to the island. The legislation would authorize $4.5 billion in security assistance to Taiwan over four years and ramp up training with Taiwanese forces. Those aspects would have a deep impact and are almost certain to pass out of the committee on Wednesday.

“The military financing piece has broad support,” Hawaii Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz said Monday night. “There seems to be a consensus emerging. But the symbols of sovereignty, I think, are causing some people some heartburn.”

Schatz has introduced amendments seeking removal of the section changing TECRO’s title and scrapping a portion that would elevate the director of the Taipei office of the American Institute in Taiwan to a Senate-confirmed position. He also proposed changing the designation of Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally to stating it is “treated” as a major non-NATO ally, consistent with the current U.S. approach.

Some amendments on the table appear minor but have big implications for how far the bill may go in asserting Taiwan’s right to self-determination. For example, separate amendments from Sens. Tim Kaine and Ed Markey would strike this symbolic sense-of-Congress language:

Markey’s proposal is part of a broader amendment removing any implications of U.S. recognition of Taiwan as a country. American policy strikes a delicate balance on Taiwan, not formally recognizing it yet also providing for close unofficial relations.

The bill as written could “undermine” America’s Taiwan policy in this respect, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council argued last month. However, the legislation includes language stating that nothing in it can be construed to restore diplomatic relations with Taiwan or alter America’s position on its international status.

Some senators believe the original bill also steps too far over the line of strategic ambiguity, the deterrence policy America has maintained for decades to keep it unclear if the United States would come to Taiwan’s defense in the event of an attack by China.

“I’m really looking to make sure that we maintain a strategy of strategic ambiguity,” Sen. Jeff Merkley told The Dispatch on Monday. “And if the bill doesn’t do that, I would have a very hard time supporting it.”

Merkley is a critic of the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights record and was a leading proponent of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act last year. He lobbied senior Biden administration officials for months to take a strong response to the genocide in Xinjiang. On the Taiwan issue, though, he’s heeding warnings from the State Department and others.

Merkley introduced an amendment shifting language in the Taiwan bill that mandates planning and annual reviews of the U.S. strategy to defend the island. On Tuesday morning, his office confirmed he made this proposal:

The changes are similar to an amendment we reported last month from Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat.

Murphy has urged caution with the Taiwan legislation, even as he recognizes more military assistance is needed. Symbolic shifts boosting Taiwan’s status “do little practically to aid Taiwan’s defense, and instead mostly fan the flames of Chinese nationalism,” Murphy recently wrote. “The Taiwanese need time,” he continued, “and it does not make sense to take steps that might expedite an invasion.”

On Monday, Murphy said he hasn’t decided if he will support sending the Taiwan Policy Act out of committee on Wednesday: “We’re still in a really productive dialogue with Senator Menendez and other members of the committee about a path forward.”

Aides and senators expect the bill to pass with a mix of support from both parties, setting it up for consideration by the full Senate. To become law, it would also have to pass the House and win President Joe Biden’s approval.

Despite its magnitude, the committee debate on Wednesday won’t be particularly transparent. Senators will discuss the new bill and potential amendments in a room that does not allow video recording. And only a couple of news reporters have obtained seats to cover the proceedings.

The meeting may be heated. Some Republicans signaled on Monday they will push back on softening of the bill’s symbolic provisions.

“None of it’s designed to be inflammatory,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and critic of the Chinese government. “If that’s the way the Chinese Communist Party decides to take it, that’s their decision. We certainly can’t be making decisions around here on the basis of what they find inflammatory, because they find a lot of things that we would consider to be fundamental inflammatory.”

Rubio expects most Republicans will support the bill in the end. But, he added, “it’s an interesting committee. Sometimes you get surprised.”

Sen. Mike Rounds, another member of the panel, indicated he is undecided about his vote. He said some Republicans hold the same apprehensions Democrats do about escalating tensions with China.

“If we do it incorrectly, we can do some damage,” Rounds said. “On the other hand, it is a powerful way to send a message to China based upon our consistent support for Taiwan.”

The vote tally, of course, will depend on what the revised legislation looks like. 

“The cake isn’t baked yet,” summarized Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the committee.

On the Floor

The House is scheduled to consider a bill ending the statute of limitations for civil actions related to child sex abuse crimes, which is currently 10 years. This would apply retroactively, allowing victims to file civil suits to seek damages from federal crimes that happened more than 10 years ago, including sexual abuse, trafficking, and pornography. It passed the Senate earlier this year—if the House approves it, the bill will go to the president’s desk for his signature.

The House may consider several bills dealing with veterans’ benefits this week. Members are also set to vote on a bill expanding protections for federal whistleblowers. A full list of bills the House could bring up this week is available here.

The Senate will continue to consider judicial nominees this week. Senate leaders may also move forward with a procedural vote on the same-sex marriage bill.

Key Hearings

  • Twitter’s former head of security, who has alleged serious privacy and security failures at the company, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning. Information and livestream here.

  • Top public health officials will appear before the Senate health committee Wednesday morning to testify on the U.S. government’s response to the spread of monkeypox. Information and livestream here.

  • The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will hold a two-part hearing Wednesday focusing on social media’s impact on homeland security. Witnesses from Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and TikTok are slated to testify. Information and livestream here.

  • Experts will discuss how to modernize Congress during a hearing Wednesday morning. Information and livestream here.

  • The House Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing Wednesday morning on the future of U.S.-Taiwan trade. Information and livestream here.

  • Members of the House Homeland Security Committee will meet Thursday morning for a hearing on securing industrial control systems against cyberattacks. Information and livestream here.

Of Note

Haley Wilt is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.