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The latest on China and Taiwan
Reporting back on the early conversations on Armed Services
Three weeks ago, I told you I had been appointed to the Armed Services committee.
I also told you that I turned down a bunch of interview requests to focus on being as informed as possible before speaking.
Since then, the committee’s focus has been on China - for obvious reasons.
Yes, there’s been plenty of talk about balloons, but there’s been more talk about the situation with Taiwan.
I’m still no expert, but I want to report back to you on the early conversations our committee has had because they are clearly designed to set the stage for future decisions.
So here’s the deal:
Taiwan is a series of islands about 100 miles off the coast of China.
In 1949, a communist revolution toppled the government of China. Its ousted leaders and hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees fled to Taiwan and set up their own government in exile.
It’s been that way ever since.
Today, Taiwan is largely self-governed and densely populated with about 23m people.
We don’t recognize Taiwan as a country - very few countries do - but we still sell them a bunch of weapons for the purpose of deterring a Chinese invasion.
For example, a few years ago we sold them 66 F-16 fighter jets for $8 billion. Last year, the defense budget (drafted largely by the Armed Services committee) included a commitment to loan Taiwan a lot of money so they could buy more weapons from us.
Why do we do this? Partly because Taiwan is a democracy and China is not, so Taiwan has been a political and cultural ally for a long time. But also because, if China took over, it could threaten the stability of the whole region with major implications for security and trade.
Needless to say, this has been a major point of contention with Chinese leadership, which frequently raises the issue when speaking with American presidents, as it did last year when they told us not to “play with fire” regarding Taiwan.
Which brings us to our first Armed Services hearing of the year.
We heard about recent statements Chinese leadership has made about “reunification”with Taiwan, including by force if necessary.
We also heard that Taiwan knows it can’t keep up with China’s military investment. China has two million active soldiers; Taiwan has 170,000. China’s military spending is ten times Taiwan’s.
That’s why military talk now is centered on the “porcupine” strategy. The idea is to help turn Taiwan into a very prickly target by making sure that it’s prepared to take a large toll on any invading force - hopefully, so as to prevent an invasion.
Taiwan is now focused on weapons that are built for mobility and precision, particularly in fighting a seaborne invasion. Over the last few years, that’s included things like Stinger missiles, MQ-9 drones, Harpoon coastal defense missiles, and high-mobility artillery rockets systems (HIMARS, as we’ve seen used by Ukraine).
BUT: We have not explicitly committed to defending Taiwan if China attacks.
Our policy - and this is literally how it’s referred to - is one of “strategic ambiguity.”
That is, maybe we’ll step in, maybe we won’t.
That’s our official policy. It has been since before I was born.
At one of our hearings, a retired admiral was pushing us to adopt a new policy by making an explicit statement that we will step in if China attacks. In other words, no more ambiguity.
The upside of making a statement like that is that it could make invasion less likely by raising the stakes for China.
The downside is that it could lead to a greater risk of war with China.
So it’s a controversial proposal.
What is clear is that, as China has dialed up the heat on Taiwan, we’ve dialed up our commitment to their defense, including high-profile shows of support.
That’s why the last Speaker went. That’s why the new Speaker has said he’s going.
Even at an early stage in our committee meetings, it’s clear that the bulk of the defense budget is now going to be seen through the lens of concern over a rising China, with Taiwan as the central example of a potential near-term collision.
To understand other decisions we’re going to make about China, Ukraine, and other allies like the Philippines and Australia, you’ve got to understand this Taiwan piece. It’s a very dense issue and it’s going to affect the orbit of everything around it for at least the rest of this decade.
All for now,
Rep. Jeff Jackson