Democrats divided on Taiwan policy due to China threat

Democratic divisions over U.S. policy in Taiwan were put on display this week with a committee vote on legislation that would increase American military and diplomatic support for Taipei.

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were split on the measure, with those opposed saying Thursday that it risked undermining Washington’s long-standing “One China” policy and further inflaming relations with Beijing. 

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who was among four Democratic no votes, told The Hill that while it’s time to revise Washington’s policy toward Taipei, he wants to do it in a way that “doesn’t precipitate a conflict.”  

“My interest is in increasing the material support we give to Taiwan. I’m less enthusiastic about changes in law that would provide formal or quasi recognition to the government in Taiwan for changes that would push us closer to a security guarantee,” he said.  

The legislation comes at a time when tensions between China and Taiwan have intensified over the island’s status. U.S. officials have warned that there’s an “acute threat” that Beijing will attempt to take Taipei by force by 2030.  

The U.S. acknowledges Beijing’s claim that it is the sole government of China under its One China policy and doesn’t formally recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state. But it maintains informal ties with Taipei and, under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, is committed to providing Taiwan with arms for its defense.

Beijing has shown extreme sensitivity to any formal recognition of Taiwan as an independent nation, or any sign the U.S. is straying from the One China policy. 

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), another no vote, said in statement that he still had “serious concerns” about provisions he fears would undermine strategic ambiguity — in which the U.S. remains noncommittal about Taiwan’s independence.

“It is the people living on Taiwan who are facing the daily realities of increased Chinese aggression and will be the ones targeted in reaction to changes in U.S. policies. We should not take actions that put Taiwan at increased risk, with little reward,” he said.  

The measure — introduced by Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — would authorize $4.5 billion in foreign military financing to Taiwan over four years for accelerating Taipei’s defense capabilities.  

And it would designate Taiwan as a major non-NATO ally, which will bolster its security cooperation with the West and provide U.S. support for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and multilateral trade mechanisms.  

The Senate panel voted 17-5 to advance the Taiwan Policy Act, with Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz (Hawaii), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Markey and Murphy joined by Republican Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) voting against it. 

The White House also shared reservations about the bill last week, though it has kept its particular concerns private. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) voted in favor of the bill on Wednesday but admitted that the original version was “too forward leaning and potentially provocative.”  

“We want to provide support to Taiwan, but we’re not looking to just needlessly provoke the PRC [People’s Republic of China]. But I think enough changes were made to the bill that made me feel comfortable about it,” he said.  

Menendez said the changes made to the bill were “symbolic” rather than “substantive.” ones. It now suggests the administration negotiate changing the name of Taiwan’s diplomatic office in the U.S., rather than directing it to do so. And a provision was removed requiring Senate confirmation of the director of the American Institute in Taiwan.

However, some Demcrats took issue with a remaining provision of the bill that directs the secretary of State to rescind any guidance that prohibits members of Taiwan’s military and governmental officials from displaying “symbols of Republic of China [Taiwan] sovereignty” at U.S.-hosted events, including wearing official military uniforms or displaying the island’s flag.  

Schatz told The Hill that his vote against the bill was “a closer call than I anticipated,” and said that provision of the bill was unnecessary to the bill’s main objective of helping to bolster Taiwan’s defense capabilities.  

“If you’re going to do something to make a potential adversary angry, you have to know why you’re doing it. And those symbols were exactly that they were symbolic in nature,” Schatz said. “So, I’m more interested in assisting Taiwan to be prepared, and that I think that is the core of the bill. But these other parts, I found to be less helpful.”  

Van Hollen told The Hill that the provisions dealing with symbols of sovereignty is “very arguably” seen as a departure from the One China Policy.   

“I know that’s not the intent,” he said, “But I think it veers too far in that direction without any tangible benefit to the people.”  

Despite the concerns, Democrats say they are united behind the bill’s main goal, which is to improve Taiwan’s defense capabilities. It’s unclear when exactly the full Senate will consider the bill, or how much it will change before a floor vote. 

Menendez told The Hill that he continues to work with his colleagues on their concerns about the legislation, and expects that it will eventually become part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

“There are a few members who have a few issues, and we will continue to work with them,” he said. “We think we’ve made a lot of changes to the bill, brought it over a long way.”