US Senate advances bill to significantly expand Taiwan support

Legislation would include billions in direct military aid and jettison many of the euphemisms used to avoid upsetting China.

A Senate committee in the United States has taken the first step towards legislation that would significantly enhance US military support for Taiwan, including potentially billions of dollars in additional security assistance, as the self-ruled island comes under increasing pressure from China.

The US has provided Taiwan with weapons to defend itself under decades-old legislation, but the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 would go further by providing security assistance of $4.5bn over four years. It also lays out sanctions on Beijing if it uses force to try to seize the island, which it sees as its own, and supports Taipei’s participation in international organisations.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee backed the legislation 17-5 on Wednesday, despite concerns about the bill among members of President Joe Biden’s administration and anger about the measure from Beijing.

Sponsors said the bill would be the most comprehensive restructuring of US policy towards the island since the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which was passed after Washington switched formal diplomatic recognition to Beijing and mandates the US to “preserve and promote extensive, close and friendly commercial, cultural, and other relations between the people of the United States and the people of Taiwan”.

“We need to be clear-eyed about what we are facing,” said Senator Bob Menendez, the committee’s Democratic chairman, while stressing that the US does not seek war or heightened tensions with Beijing.

“If we want to ensure Taiwan has a fighting chance, we must act now,” said Senator Jim Risch, the committee’s top Republican, arguing that any change in the status quo for Taiwan would have “disastrous effects” for the US economy and national security.

The bill must still clear the full Senate and House before it can become law.

The White House has not said whether Biden will sign the legislation, although with strong bipartisan support Congress could override any potential veto.

Clarity over ambiguity

The new legislation is moving forward amid heightened tensions over Taiwan after a visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prompted China to stage days of large-scale military sea and air exercises over and around the island.

Taiwan has accused Beijing of trying to change the status quo on the island, and the presidential office thanked the Senate for its latest show of support, saying the bill would “help promote the Taiwan-US partnership in many ways”, including security and economic cooperation.

The US has for years followed a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan, and when the bill was introduced in June, Beijing said it would be “compelled to take resolute countermeasures” if Washington took actions that harmed China’s interests.

The bill does not propose the US formally recognise Taiwan, but it does include the end of many of the runarounds and euphemisms that have been in place so as not to anger China.

The de facto embassy, now known as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, would be renamed the Taiwan Representative Office and the US government would be instructed to interact with Taiwan as it would with any government.

The top US envoy in Taipei, now called the director of the American Institute in Taiwan, would be renamed the “representative” of the office and need confirmation by the Senate, in the same way as a US ambassador.

The proposed legislation would designate Taiwan a “major non-NATO ally,” a status for the closest US military partners outside the transatlantic alliance. And in a reflection of changing dynamics since the 1979 act, the bill says the US will provide weapons “conducive to deterring acts of aggression” by China rather than simply “defensive” weapons.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that the Biden administration was in touch with lawmakers about the legislation.

“We appreciate the strong bipartisan support for Taiwan and want to work with Congress to strengthen that,” she said.

The Taiwan bill could be folded into a larger piece of legislation, such as the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill setting policy for the Department of Defense, which is expected to pass later this year.