By I-Lin Lin
In September, the House Armed Services Committee approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the 2022 fiscal year in a bipartisan manner. The bill outlines the U.S. military’s priorities and authorizes its 2022 budget. Amid rising tensions between the U.S. and China, the NDAA mentions Taiwan in sections 1243, 1247, and 1248. The bill points out the increased military threat that China poses on Taiwan and its neighboring regions. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin views China as a top pacing threat. A pacing threat is a nation actively making considerable progress towards challenging U.S. defense strategy.
Merely 124 miles from China, Taiwan occupies a strategically critical position in the Indo-Pacific. The country has come a long way since its first democratic election in 1996 and has since formed a collective democratic identity. Despite the presence of an authoritarian neighbor, Taiwan continues to uphold democratic and progressive values. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan has demonstrated how transparent, innovative, and democratic governance can achieve effective responses. It can serve as a strategic ally to other democratic countries worldwide in areas such as global health, technology, climate change, and regional stability.
Moreover, Taiwan’s unique geographic location in the Pacific Ocean has long offered security and political value for the United States. For example, in March, Taiwan and the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a coast guard working group to facilitate information exchange and greater collaboration on shared interests. The 2022 NDAA further calls on the government to expand joint military exercises, information exchange, and potential National Guard partnerships with Taiwan.
After his inauguration, President Joe Biden emphasized his commitment to “preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific” in a conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The stability and security of the Indo-Pacific will, in many ways, shape America’s future. The Indo-Pacific is one of the fastest-growing regions for new economic opportunities and rising tensions in international politics. Therefore, the Department of Defense has proposed that the U.S. effectively maintains its competitive advantages against China and improves military competence in Asia through alliances and partnerships. One of the more powerful competitive advantages is the network of allies and partners that will aid the U.S. in tackling shared international challenges such as climate change and defense priorities.
The 2022 NDAA calls attention to China’s increasing military threat toward Taiwan. According to Section 1243, the Secretary of Defense must submit a report on the feasibility and advisability of cooperation between the U.S. National Guard and Taiwan in cyber defense, military training, and emergency response. Notably, in July 2021, senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) introduced the Taiwan Partnership Act. The bill similarly proposes exploring cooperation between the U.S. National Guard and Taiwan. It highlights the critical U.S.-Taiwan alliance in the Indo-Pacific region and the need for continued U.S. support to develop Taiwan’s defense forces.
Section 1247 of the NDAA highlights the U.S. commitment to supporting Taiwan’s self-defense amid China’s intensified aggression. For example, the House Armed Services Committee supports the provision of anti-ship missiles for Taiwan’s self-defense. The bill would require the Secretary of Defense to brief Congress on the department’s assessment of Taiwan’s defensive capabilities and the U.S. plan for assistance. It also notes that the U.S. and Taiwan exchange communication on “strategic, policy, and functional levels” to help effective collaboration between the two countries.
Additionally, Section 1248 states that Taiwan’s naval forces should participate in the Rim of the Pacific exercise in 2022. The exercise is the world’s largest international maritime exercise and involves more than 20 participating countries.
When past budgets included Taiwan, they primarily focused on arms sales that have enhanced Taiwan’s self-defense capabilities. As circumstances recently shifted, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen confirmed that U.S. troops, for the first time, are on Taiwanese soil for training purposes. The 2022 NDAA recommends inviting Taiwan to join the Rim of the Pacific. By inviting Taiwan, the U.S. expects to expand its military cooperation to deter China’s persistent threat in the Indo-Pacific and prevent China from forcefully and irreversibly unifying Taiwan.
China’s military power and ambition have significantly grown in cyber technology, nuclear modernization, and outer space. According to The Diplomat, China’s space weapons program aims to compete with the United States. Richard Hass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, stated that a military, diplomatic, and economic presence in the Indo-Pacific is essential for the U.S. to compete with China in the long haul. Compared to his predecessors, China’s President Xi has proven to be a risk-taker. Xi is more willing to leverage the Chinese Communist Party’s control at home and its expanding sphere of influence to pursue Chinese national interests. Beijing has exemplified expansionist behavior across the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea by assuming an increasingly aggressive posture. As for Taiwan, Tsai asserts that “the maintenance of regional security will remain a significant part of Taiwan’s overall government policy.” Still, Taiwan’s government remains open to an equal dialogue with China.
Historically, the Taiwan-China relationship has been tense. China views Taiwan as an inseparable part of its territory, and China’s leaders have been adamantly vocal about pursuing reunification, with force if necessary. China has intensified its threat to Taiwan in recent years. Such concerns have also permeated U.S. policymakers and driven a change thinking that the once well-maintained situation between Taiwan and China is now dissolving. As stated in the 2022 NDAA, China’s “coercive” and “aggressive” approach toward Taiwan contradicts the expectation of a peaceful resolution of Taiwan’s future. The House Armed Services Committee further acknowledged the crucial need to engage Taiwan in regional dialogues and forums.
Influenced by Chinese civilization and Asian traditions, Taiwan lies at the intersection of authoritarian regimes and western democracy. Geo-strategically, it is part of the first island chain that runs from Japan to Borneo. As global demand surges, Taiwan steadily delivers and advances semiconductors, artificial intelligence, 5G technology, renewable energy, and biotechnology, among many other areas in the global economy. Taiwan’s expertise and geographic location contribute to the global supply chain and play a crucial role in the U.S. strategic plan.
The Indo-Pacific region is of critical importance for America’s economic prosperity and security. In 2018, the U.S. conducted $1.9 trillion in two-way trade with the area, and in 2020, the International Trade Administration (ITA) facilitated $24.95 billion in U.S. exports to the region. On the other hand, some of America’s critical allies and threats are in the Indo-Pacific. For example, while China and Korea possess missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory, their cyber threats could also jeopardize the U.S. and the rest of the world. Thus, the U.S. must maintain strong alliances in the region to protect American interests.
The 2022 NDAA passed in the House in September, and the Senate is currently reviewing the bill. The two chambers will iron out the differences in the coming months. The situation between Taiwan and China is complex, and the relation between the U.S. and China is dynamic. Though the 2022 NDAA is not a remedy, it helps unveil the Biden administration’s policy trajectory.