Report

‘Now You’re in a Situation’: Democrats Pressure Biden on Taiwan

Moderates want to give U.S. President Joe Biden more war powers to stave off a Chinese invasion. Progressives don’t agree.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in the South Court Auditorium on the White House campus in Washington on Oct. 14. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

China’s ramped-up saber-rattling over Taiwan has put the Biden administration in a tricky spot: boxed in between moderates and progressives within the Democratic caucus on the best way to respond to Beijing.

The debate has flared up on Capitol Hill between some centrist Democrats, who worry U.S. President Joe Biden faces legal limits to his war powers in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island, and progressives, who are concerned that a more aggressive U.S. policy could push the situation closer to war. The rhetorical fight has intensified after China conducted a record-breaking number of air incursions near Taiwan earlier this month.

At the heart of partisan wrangling is a proposal floated by House Armed Services vice chair Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democrat, who—in the Washington Post last week—called for giving the Biden administration war-making authorities that would allow the president to declare a snap authorization on the use of force if China invaded the island. Luria’s concerned that Biden doesn’t have the legal authority to defend Taiwan under a law dating back to 1979, which says the United States is able to arm the island against a potential military threat but can’t formally recognize its government. Unlike agreements with Japan and the Philippines, the United States has no obligation to come to Taiwan’s defense.

China’s ramped-up saber-rattling over Taiwan has put the Biden administration in a tricky spot: boxed in between moderates and progressives within the Democratic caucus on the best way to respond to Beijing.

The debate has flared up on Capitol Hill between some centrist Democrats, who worry U.S. President Joe Biden faces legal limits to his war powers in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island, and progressives, who are concerned that a more aggressive U.S. policy could push the situation closer to war. The rhetorical fight has intensified after China conducted a record-breaking number of air incursions near Taiwan earlier this month.

At the heart of partisan wrangling is a proposal floated by House Armed Services vice chair Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democrat, who—in the Washington Post last week—called for giving the Biden administration war-making authorities that would allow the president to declare a snap authorization on the use of force if China invaded the island. Luria’s concerned that Biden doesn’t have the legal authority to defend Taiwan under a law dating back to 1979, which says the United States is able to arm the island against a potential military threat but can’t formally recognize its government. Unlike agreements with Japan and the Philippines, the United States has no obligation to come to Taiwan’s defense.

Biden’s legal limits on war-making conjure a possible nightmare scenario for Luria: China could turn a military exercise, such as its yearly amphibious assault practices, into an all-out invasion of Taiwan, and the White House could be stuck pleading with Congress to respond by authorizing the use of military force.

“So say this year they decided ‘I’m going to turn right instead of left and were going to go across the strait.’ It’s only 110 miles,” Luria said. “We have forces there. Can they react? If we have a carrier strike group, if we have ships transiting the Strait of Taiwan, or if they have ships, you know, a few hours or a day away, what can they actually do?”

“So if you can’t act quickly enough, China overwhelmingly takes Taiwan,” Luria added. “Now you’re in a situation—a fait accompli—they’ve taken Taiwan. What are you going to try to do? Go take it back?”

Progressives in the Democratic caucus are also worried about China’s moves on Taiwan, especially from a human rights and democracy standpoint: Some fear Beijing could replicate brutal crackdowns on human rights and democratic freedoms the regime has wielded in Hong Kong, Tibet, and the Xinjiang province if there was an invasion.

But they don’t want to rock the boat either. A move to expand the president’s authorities could upset the principle of “strategic ambiguity,” which argues the United States isn’t legally bound to defend Taiwan against Chinese assault—a principle that has held up for more than four decades. They’re worried Biden is being clawed away from the tendency of restraint he displayed in Afghanistan and that a more unpredictable president might wield expansive war-making authorities more carelessly.

“A policy of ambiguity may not be the most emotionally satisfying for D.C. hawks, but it’s working,” said Matt Duss, an aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders. “Given the experience not only of the last four years of a reckless president but of the previous 20 years of endless war, the dangers of creating another open-ended war authorization should be obvious.”

There’s growing fear within the U.S. government that Chinese President Xi Jinping no longer sees political reconciliation over Taiwan as viable. Top military leaders have told Congress that China could try to invade the island within the next six years, and Beijing’s rhetoric toward what it regards as a renegade province has hardened in recent years.

Wang Ting-yu, Taiwan’s top foreign affairs and defense parliamentarian, said no intelligence indicated that an attack on the island was imminent despite the record-breaking exercises earlier this month that coincided with China’s National Day, which he said was an effort by the People’s Liberation Army to practice their tactics in areas near the edge of Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.

“They cannot afford that kind of conflict because they will destroy their economy,” Wang said. “So we need to be very cautious, and the world needs to let China know: Dont do that. Youre not stupid. You’re responsible for a war.”

But, he added, the Biden administration needs to send a clearer message—and perhaps take a step toward a more formal stance on defending Taiwan.

“Maybe the Biden administration needs to send a stronger clear message to convince the people in this region, including China, that the United States is worth [its] commitment, especially after [the] Afghanistan retreat.”

It’s not clear any such a message is coming, at least for now. Inside the Defense Department, there’s an ongoing fight about how imminent the threat actually is. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley has indicated China doesn’t presently have the intention nor capability to invade, though it might in six years. However, the last two chiefs of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson and Adm. John Aquilino, have indicated China has both and could strike by 2027—when Xi is likely to seek a third term as China’s leader—if not sooner. Naval experts agree China’s window of opportunity is shrinking, which could force aggressive action in the next few years.

The stakes are increasing as China’s strike capabilities appear to be gaining by leaps and bounds, alarming U.S. officials who fear Beijing might be able to box U.S. forces out of the region with more precise missiles or might be preparing for a conflict to go nuclear. On Saturday, the Financial Times reported that China had test-launched a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon. Chinese officials denied this report, insisting they tested a “space vehicle,” not a missile. China has also built a bigger surface fleet than the United States, made big investments in anti-ship missiles and amphibious capabilities, and launched its first two aircraft carriers in recent years—with a third under construction.

Some, like Luria, see China’s growing capabilities as a sign that the United States still isn’t putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to deterring China from trying to seize Taiwan. Recent U.S. operations in the Taiwan Strait and throughout the South China Sea have been focused on so-called freedom of navigation operations, meant to assert the right of all states to transit international waters.

“Were just not thinking about what investments are critical in this theater,” Luria said. “We are out there sort of fighting a battle for freedom of the seas with the Chinese. No shots being fired. But, you know, it is just a continuous, ongoing conflict.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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