The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday sent to the floor a major Taiwan security assistance bill, but not before agreeing to dilute some of the legislation’s provisions that would have ordered certain enhancements to U.S. diplomatic engagement with the self-governing island.
In urging the watering down of the diplomacy language, Democrats and a few Republicans said they worried about needlessly provoking China and risking some kind of retaliation when there was little concrete benefit to be had for Taiwan, for example, in making the senior American diplomat in Taiwan a position that requires Senate confirmation, as the original legislation would have done.
“The United States does not seek war,” Menendez said, adding the principal goal of the legislation was to avert an armed conflict in East Asia by strengthening Taiwan’s defense capabilities enough that China would be deterred from invasion. “If we hope to have credible deterrence and maintain cross-strait stability, we need to be clear-eyed about what we are facing.”
The bill was introduced earlier this summer, but a scheduled markup was twice delayed — first in July at the request of Republicans and then in early August due to a scheduling conflict with Senate floor votes. The delays meant senators had more time to hash out their differences, Menendez said.
The committee agreed, by voice vote, to adopt a substitute amendment that included changes requested by both Republicans and Democrats. Among other tweaks, the amendment deleted a provision that would have made the senior diplomat at the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy there, a Senate-confirmed position.
Another provision would have ordered the renaming of the de facto Taiwanese embassy in Washington to the “Taiwan Representative Office,” a somewhat more elevated title than its current one of “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.” Instead, the provision was watered down to just a recommendation that it be renamed.
The amendment also added another $2 billion authorization in Foreign Military Financing grants for Taiwan for fiscal 2027. That funding authorization is on top of the underlying bill’s fiscal 2023 through fiscal 2026 authorization of $4.5 billion in FMF funding for Taipei to use to buy more U.S. weapons.
But it is congressional appropriators who will have the final say on what amount of U.S. taxpayer funding Taiwan receives to boost its military readiness.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who is the chairman of the Senate State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and a Foreign Relations member, said it would likely be a steep hill to secure for Taiwan the entire $6.5 billion security assistance provision that the amended bill would authorize. But he said he thought the initial fiscal 2023 authorization of $250 million in FMF grants was doable.
The bulk of the bill’s other security assistance provisions were left unchanged, though some descriptive wording was altered. For example, an original authorization for the president to establish a “war reserve stockpile for Taiwan” was modified to become a “regional contingency stockpile for Taiwan.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who ultimately voted for the bill, said he worried the effect of the measure would be to implicitly undermine the long-standing U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity, whereby Washington leaves it unclear how it would respond in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Romney said it would have been better to try to pass the security assistance provisions in a lower-profile manner, such as by attaching them to Congress’ annual must-pass defense authorization bill.
“We’re doing something that is highly provocative and bellicose,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t make China say, ‘Well, gosh, Taiwan is going to get stronger, maybe we ought to move now.’ I’m just very frustrated that we, as a committee, decided to put a big spotlight on a Taiwan Policy Act. This should have been done quietly.”
In general, most of the criticisms of the bill came from progressive Democrats, though at least two Republicans — Romney and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — also voiced worries. Most of the concerns centered around how China would view the bill and if Beijing concluded the bill would do too much to strengthen Taiwan’s defenses, whether it would end up backfiring by causing Chinese President Xi Jinping to speed up his feared timetable for launching an invasion.
State Department authorization
The committee also approved, as amended and by voice vote, the fiscal 2023 State Department authorization bill.
Menendez said he was optimistic of the chances of building on last year’s success in getting a State authorization measure cleared.
The chairman said for that to happen, the legislation would need to be kept free of too many “country specific or issue specific” provisions that would be the “death knell” for getting the bill adopted as an amendment to the annual defense policy measure.
The authorization legislation mostly focuses on State Department personnel policies including language aimed at improving the diversity of the government’s diplomatic workforce and streamlining the security clearance approval process.
The bill would overhaul the way the department assesses security incidents at U.S. embassies and diplomatic missions around the world, with the aim of reversing a decadeslong trend of risk aversion among senior State Department officials that critics argue has unduly constrained American diplomats’ ability to leave their embassies and conduct in-person U.S. foreign policy in local communities.
“These have the potential to make a generational change at State, recalculating the department’s risk balance and saving the taxpayer potentially billions of dollars,” said the committee’s top Republican, Jim Risch of Idaho, who sponsored the language along with Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn.
The committee agreed by voice vote to adopt an amendment from Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., to the authorization bill that would prevent any U.S. president from unilaterally withdrawing from NATO absent either a two-thirds vote from the Senate or an act of Congress, which means both the House and Senate would have to vote in support of the action.