Report

China Urged Republicans to Cancel Taiwan Visit

Beijing warned U.S. lawmakers the trip would erode the “One China” status quo.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A military helicopter flies with Taiwans national flag during the National Day in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei on October 10, 2020.
A military helicopter flies with Taiwans national flag during the National Day in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei on October 10, 2020. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

A group of Republican lawmakers were getting ready for a three-country swing of U.S. military partners in China’s geographic backyard last week when they got an alarming message from Beijing’s embassy in Washington. Chinese diplomats had been given a heads up about the trip that would take four senators and two members of Congress around the region, from Hawaii all the way to the embattled island of Taiwan, and they had a stern démarche: It said, in effect, don’t go. 

“To our knowledge, this type of language hasn’t been used with U.S. lawmakers before from the Chinese Embassy,” said Rep. Jake Ellzey, a freshman member of Congress from Texas and former Navy pilot who went on the trip, led by his fellow Texan Sen. John Cornyn. “It wasn’t a threat, but urging us to cancel. They didn’t use the word ‘condemn,’ but it was pretty clear it was a condemnation of the trip.”

The Chinese diplomats went further than that, Ellzey said, in the message that landed in the inbox of his chief of staff before takeoff and went to the rest of the delegation: Cornyn and Sens. Tommy Tuberville, Mike Lee, and Mike Crapo, as well as Anthony Gonzalez, another Texas congressman. The Chinese officials said the trip threatened “everything that America says about the ‘One China’ policy and that Taiwan is a part of China,” Ellzey said. 

A group of Republican lawmakers were getting ready for a three-country swing of U.S. military partners in China’s geographic backyard last week when they got an alarming message from Beijing’s embassy in Washington. Chinese diplomats had been given a heads up about the trip that would take four senators and two members of Congress around the region, from Hawaii all the way to the embattled island of Taiwan, and they had a stern démarche: It said, in effect, don’t go. 

“To our knowledge, this type of language hasn’t been used with U.S. lawmakers before from the Chinese Embassy,” said Rep. Jake Ellzey, a freshman member of Congress from Texas and former Navy pilot who went on the trip, led by his fellow Texan Sen. John Cornyn. “It wasn’t a threat, but urging us to cancel. They didn’t use the word ‘condemn,’ but it was pretty clear it was a condemnation of the trip.”

The Chinese diplomats went further than that, Ellzey said, in the message that landed in the inbox of his chief of staff before takeoff and went to the rest of the delegation: Cornyn and Sens. Tommy Tuberville, Mike Lee, and Mike Crapo, as well as Anthony Gonzalez, another Texas congressman. The Chinese officials said the trip threatened “everything that America says about the ‘One China’ policy and that Taiwan is a part of China,” Ellzey said. 

Even though the members of the delegation said Beijing was warned of the trip, Chinese government-affiliated media outlets such as Global Times jumped on it as an example of a clandestine visit by American lawmakers on military aircraft and an example of U.S. diplomatic mission creep toward embracing Taiwan. (The lawmakers traveled on a Navy cargo plane, similar to how past delegations have flown to the island.)

“They called us sneaky rats,” Ellzey said, after returning from the trip that wrapped up on Sunday. “Clearly, they don’t do their homework on Americans in the first place. We have cooperation with Taiwan. We didn’t change our stance. We did not undercut the Biden administration in any way, shape, or form.”

But some progressive foreign-policy thinkers are concerned that President Joe Biden is facing mounting pressure from Congress to commit to defending Taiwan. A handful of Republicans led by Sen. Thom Tillis and Rep. Mike Gallagher have called on the White House to put the four-decade policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the shelf. This latest trip has only deepened those fears.

“The existing policy of strategic ambiguity has served the United States and Taiwan well, and the visit to Taiwan by a handful [Republican] lawmakers appears to be the latest in a series of moves to weaken strategic ambiguity and threaten the status quo,” Stephen Wertheim, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Foreign Policy in a Twitter direct message. “It would be better for lawmakers concerned about the defense of Taiwan to visit their home districts and ask their constituents whether the United States really would benefit by committing in advance to go to war with the world’s number-two power, at potentially enormous cost to American lives and prosperity.” 

Some in the Biden administration believe China’s military sees these repeated unofficial American visits, which date back to President Donald Trump’s time in office, as an effort by Washington to erode the status quo. Defense Department discussions have centered on the notion that China’s leader Xi Jinping is prolonging his term in office to resolve the cross-strait issue.

Though the public debate has continued to spiral, a Democratic Senate aide told Foreign Policy that the Biden administration is not feeling any genuine pressure to move away from strategic ambiguity. Progressives within the Democratic Party have pushed for the United States to continue the policy and to ensure Biden stops short of committing U.S. troops to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

“I think it’s smart to avoid making those kinds of commitments that we’re not prepared to make good on,” said the aide, who asked not to be named in order to discuss a sensitive political topic. “Let’s not pretend like we’re going to go all in to repel a land invasion of Taiwan, but let’s also make clear that Americans are supportive of helping Taiwanese defend themselves.”

But progressives on Capitol Hill are still worried that saber-rattling over Taiwan will become the new normal in Washington. “I think the goal of progressives is just, how can we have a smart conversation about this and not get drawn into the usual bullshit of, like, who’s tougher on China?” the Democratic Senate aide added.

Despite some internal rumblings of trepidation, Biden has added to a Trump-era deployment of U.S. Marines and Army Special Forces to Taiwan designed to do exactly that, as Foreign Policy reported last week: U.S. troops have helped prepare the island’s military to check the threat of a Chinese amphibious invasion and to help continue an armed resistance against Chinese forces if they make it onshore. The Pentagon’s Defense Manpower Data Center reported that 30 active-duty troops and 15 Pentagon civilians were serving on the island in June. 

Tuberville said that Taiwanese officials on the trip were receptive to an American push to buy fast boats and mobile missile launchers instead of bigger platforms like fighter jets, to make Taiwan a pricklier defensive target for Chinese invaders. “Tanks don’t float—they just become new targets,” Tuberville told reporters at a news conference on Monday. 

And the visit by Republican lawmakers continues a trend of hands-on—if indirect—diplomacy with Taiwan. Then-U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar visited the island in August 2020, and a high-level visit from then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft was shelved just days before the presidential transition in January. But during the Biden administration, unofficial contacts with the island have continued to accelerate. At the president’s personal request, a delegation of former U.S. officials and lawmakers led by former Sen. Chris Dodd traveled to Taiwan in April; in June, a bipartisan grouping of U.S. senators—including Chris Coons, a close Biden ally—met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to announce the delivery of 750,000 Pfizer vaccines. 

Some experts are particularly worried that the unofficial visits are jeopardizing the “One China” policy that dates back to the Nixon administration, which broke official U.S. relations with Taiwan and led the Pentagon to cut military installations there.

“Basically what we’ve been watching is straws hitting the camel’s back,” said Chas Freeman, a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs who was an assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration. “There’s not one that’s broken the camel’s back yet, but we’re coming close.”

The timing of the Cornyn-led group’s visit aboard a U.S. military aircraft comes as the United States tries to reassure allies that are increasingly worried about Chinese expansion in Asia. On Thursday, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief John Aquilino traveled to Japan’s westernmost Yonaguni Island, a little more than 60 miles from Taiwan, to meet with the head of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, a periodic display of solidarity made by American military officials. 

On the three-country swing, which included stops in India and the Philippines and covered 27,000 miles, the message from foreign officials was clear, lawmakers said: China’s rise is becoming a regional problem. 

“Nobody saw a president for life [Vladimir] Putin, just like I don’t think they saw a president for life Xi Jinping,” said Ellzey, the freshman Republican lawmaker. “So I think everybody is on edge a little bit. As the foreign minister of India said: This isn’t a Taiwan problem, this is a China problem.”

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

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