Lawmakers Want to Increase Military Training for Taiwan as Tensions with China Intensify

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USS McCampbell conducting operations in the Taiwan Strait.
U.S. Navy Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Logan Brown scans the horizon from the bridge wing aboard the USS McCampbell while conducting operations in the Taiwan Strait. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Markus Castaneda)

U.S. military training for Taiwan could be stepped up under a proposal making its way through Congress.

The mandate for a "comprehensive training program" between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries is included in a sweeping bill passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week. Known as the Taiwan Policy Act, the bill would be a far-reaching deepening of U.S.-Taiwan relations and seeks to escalate U.S. military, diplomatic and economic support for the island that could be a flashpoint in any war between the United States and China.

"We saw that in Ukraine, my Ukraine Freedom Support Act that I passed back several years ago, which was a significant part of training the Ukrainians, has paid off now as they try to fight for their freedom," committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who sponsored the bill with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told Military.com when asked about the importance of training Taiwan's military. "And so I think that's a very important part. History has shown us that a domestic force well-trained and committed to fight for their country can make all the difference."

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While the bill advanced out of committee, its path forward to final passage is unclear. Menendez said he wants to include a "significant amount" of his measure -- at the very least the military elements -- in the annual defense policy bill pending in Congress, though there are procedural hurdles to doing so and the White House has expressed broad concerns about some of the non-military aspects of the bill.

U.S.-China tensions over Taiwan have been running hot for months, but threatened to boil over this summer after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., visited the island, the first House speaker to do so since Newt Gingrich in 1997. Pelosi's visit infuriated Beijing, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province and considers "reunification" a top priority. China ratcheted up military exercises around Taiwan after the trip, but Pelosi's visit was followed by several more trips from lawmakers in both parties as Congress seeks to signal support for the island.

Officially, the United States maintains a policy of "strategic ambiguity" around Taiwan where Washington remains purposefully vague about whether it would come to the island's defense if China invades. Still, the United States overtly provides support for Taiwan to defend itself, chiefly through arms sales, as required under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

Any more direct military support is often kept quiet because of the strategic ambiguity policy. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen confirmed in an interview with CNN last year that a small number of U.S. troops were on the island training Taiwanese forces. But U.S. defense officials routinely sidestep questions about U.S. military training in Taiwan.

The bill approved by the Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday would require the departments of State and Defense to "establish or expand" a training program that is designed to "achieve interoperability," "familiarize the militaries of the United States and Taiwan with each other" and "improve Taiwan's defense capabilities."

The training should entail tabletop exercises, war games, full-scale military exercises and "an enduring rotational United States military presence that assists Taiwan in maintaining force readiness," according to the bill text.

In addition to military training, the bill seeks to shore up Taiwan's defense through $6.5 billion over five years in a form of aid known Foreign Military Financing, which provides grants and loans for other countries to buy U.S.-made weapons. The funding would still be subject to the annual appropriations process, meaning even if the bill becomes law, U.S. military aid to Taiwan may not reach that amount.

The bill was approved by the committee in a bipartisan 17-5 vote after watering down some of the diplomatic provisions to assuage White House concerns.

China has already reacted angrily to the bill, while Taiwan has thanked the committee for "conveying staunch support" for upgrading U.S.-Taiwan ties.

What comes next for the bill remains murky. Asked whether he would support attaching it to the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., who is responsible for shepherding the defense bill through the upper chamber, said he still needs to review the Taiwan measure to see if it's consistent with the Pentagon's goals and abilities.

The Senate's NDAA already has several provisions meant to strengthen Taiwan's defense, including one to state that U.S. policy is to "maintain the ability of the United States Armed Forces to deny a fait accompli against Taiwan in order to deter the People's Republic of China from using military force to unilaterally change the status quo with Taiwan."

Reed also noted procedural hurdles to attaching separate bills to the NDAA, including needing sign off from House stakeholders. House lawmakers in both parties have expressed strong support for Taiwan, but House Democrats have sometimes been less hawkish than their Senate counterparts on foreign policy in general.

Asked about U.S. military training for Taiwan, Reed expressed hesitation at doing so openly, saying the United States has to weigh whether that could just "accelerate the crisis."

"The Taiwanese themselves have to pull together a much more effective training program," he told Military.com. "We can help with our training, but when it's mandated by law, when it's so open and obvious, that tends to get an emotional reaction from the Chinese."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

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