Senators Demand Clarity on U.S. Defense of Taiwan Against China

Lawmakers urged the Joe Biden administration to clarity the United States' security commitments to Taiwan as the democratic island faces increasing military and economic pressure from the People's Republic of China (PRC).

Ely Ratner, the Pentagon's assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that Beijing's military buildup was "stressing stability" across the Taiwan Strait. Daniel Kritenbrink, the State Department's assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, highlighted the need to bolster Taiwan diplomatically and economically.

The U.S. has maintained strong but unofficial relations with Taipei since switching formal diplomatic ties to Beijing in 1979. The PRC claims the island as part of its territory and, in a 2005 domestic law, vowed to "unify" the island by force if all other means are exhausted—a position that continues to concern Washington.

The cornerstone of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship is the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), a law supported by then Senator Joe Biden and the rest of Congress in 1979. The TRA mandates the provision of arms and services to Taipei to maintain a credible self-defense. It also requires that the U.S. maintain its own capability to resist any attempt by the PRC to resolve cross-strait differences by other than peaceful means.

Crucially, the legislation doesn't provide Taiwan with an outright security guarantee like that of a defense treaty. Successive administrations have remained purposely noncommittal on the question of whether the U.S. would defend the island from a Chinese invasion, in a policy known as "strategic ambiguity."

Senators Demand Clarity On U.S.'s Taiwan Defense
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink speaks at a hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on December 8, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Sense of Congress

Senators questioned the sustainability of the posture on Capitol Hill this week, while also demonstrating the strength and depth of the TRA—the only element of the U.S.'s "one China" policy that is enshrined in law.

"The U.S.'s commitment to the people of Taiwan—and our obligation to safeguard Taiwan's space to make its own determinations about its own future without threat of coercion or use of force—must be unequivocal," said Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), committee chair.

He added: "Beijing should have no doubt or question that any cross-strait military or kinetic contingency directly affects the United States and our interests and values—directly affects our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances [given to Taipei by the Reagan administration in 1982]—and there should be no doubt, question or misunderstanding that we will respond appropriately."

The lawmaker's vow to respond was a direct reference to an oft-overlooked element of the TRA which requires the president to inform Congress of any threat to Taiwan as well as resulting danger to American interests.

"The President and the Congress shall determine, in accordance with constitutional processes, appropriate action by the United States in response to any such danger," the text of the legislation reads. That is, in the absence of a cast-iron defense guarantee for Taiwan, the intent of the legislative branch is key.

Biden's Intent

While the Senate and House have all but put to rest any doubts about where they stand, their commitment is only half of the equation—the will of the executive completes any decision that would ultimately see the U.S. come to Taiwan's defense.

During a CNN town hall in October, President Biden shook policy circles when he answered "yes" to a question about defending the island. His remarks were walked back by the White House minutes later, with a spokesperson insisting that there had been no change in U.S. policy toward Taiwan. To observers however, Biden's personal position on the matter was clear.

During Wednesday's open session, Senator Jim Risch (R-ID), the committee's ranking member, said the U.S. needed to be "laser-focused on concrete actions" in order to support Taiwan against the Chinese military. He was critical of "confused and varying statements" by the Biden administration.

Risch also stressed the centrality of the TRA, saying: "There's been much talk recently about U.S. policy regarding Taiwan. I want to urge anyone, whether they're friends or enemies, to read the Taiwan Relations Act."

"This is United States law. It is not a suggestion. It's not a thought. It's law that was put in place on January 1, 1979," he said. "It sets forth the policy of the United States regarding Taiwan. It is binding. It is the law. It is not a suggestion. It is a commitment to ourselves. It is a commitment to our allies. It's a commitment to Taiwan. And, it's a commitment to the world."

Senators Demand Clarity On U.S.'s Taiwan Defense
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner listens during a hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on December 8, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Stressing Stability

Before answering questions from the Senate committee, Ratner noted the geostrategic and economic importance of Taiwan, the U.S.'s ninth largest trading partner. "The PRC is the department's pacing challenge, and a Taiwan contingency is the pacing scenario," he said.

Responding to Menendez, both Kritenbrink and Ratner backed a continuation of "strategic ambiguity" with regards to intervention in the Taiwan Strait. Kritenbrink said the U.S.'s existing "one China" framework had the necessary tools to discourage the PRC's resort to force, while Ratner added: "A change in U.S. declaratory policy would not meaningfully strengthen deterrence."

On the prospect of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, Kritenbrink told Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT): "Certainly, the economic consequences of any conflict would be severe." Paraphrasing Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the State Department official added: "This would be a serious mistake, if China were to ever take that step, with very serious consequences."

Ratner said the PRC's military modernization was "stressing stability across the strait," and that the Pentagon was "moving as fast as we can" to bolster deterrence with the help of American allies in the region.

At the same time, the Biden administration was seeking to reestablish high-level talks between the Defense Department and the Chinese military, known as the People's Liberation Army, Ratner told Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD). Open lines of communication with the PLA will be focused on "crisis communications and crisis management" to prevent an accidental conflict, he noted.

To Senator Todd Young's (R-IN) query about when Beijing was most likely to move on Taiwan militarily, Ratner said: "The China challenge is a today problem, a tomorrow problem, a 2027 problem, a 2030 problem, a 2040 problem and beyond."

"I don't think there is a date we ought to pick on the calendar," he added. "We ought to make sure that we're sustaining deterrence from today and maintaining it going forward."

Senators Demand Clarity On U.S.'s Taiwan Defense
Senator Bob Menendez (L) and Senator Jim Risch (R), respective chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speak during a hearing with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner on Capitol Hill on December 8, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images