In recent decades, observers of American foreign policy have come to see it as a thoroughly executive branch responsibility. Understandably so. Congress has long demonstrated only episodic interest in foreign affairs, and not always in the most constructive ways.
Fortunately, this looks to be changing.
Recent case-in-point, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Yes, it was mostly symbolic. I mean, one thing the Constitution does give the executive is indisputable control over America’s official diplomatic contacts.
As symbolic gestures go, however, the Speaker’s visit was a very powerful one.
One, because it demonstrated support for Taiwan during the tensest time in cross-straits relations since at least the 1990s. That’s important. The next likely speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), says he’ll go to Taiwan to make the same point. He should.
Two, because it shows American resolve. All accounts indicate that President Biden was not happy with the Speaker’s visit. News of it conflicted with an imminent phone call with Xi Jinping (習近平).
Engagements like this have long inhibited America’s China policy. My friend and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Randy Schriver calls it the “tyranny of the calendar”. The U.S. invests so much in diplomatic exchanges with China that it pulls punches at the most critical moments.
Congress is having none of this. Pelosi’s defiance of the administration’s entreaties to cancel and follow-on visits by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relation Subcommittee on East Asia, and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) demonstrated this loud and clear.
Congressional visits to Taiwan are common occurrences. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) was there during the July 4th recess. April recess saw a visit by Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Richard Burr (R-NC), and Ben Sasse (R-NE). Last year, visiting Senators included John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), and Mike Crapo (R-ID).
In addition to their symbolic importance, these trips are critical to Congress carrying out its foreign policy responsibilities. Control over official diplomatic relationships does not mean the President has exclusive control of foreign policy. That function is designed to be shared.
Now, as Congress heads into an intense legislative period after Labor Day, we’re going to see just how much farther than symbolism and simple oversight it is willing to go in asserting its powers.
On September 14, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will mark-up the Taiwan Policy Act, a long-overdue “comprehensive overhaul” of Taiwan Policy—as its authors describe it. The bill does several necessary things. Among them, it changes the title of America’s de-facto ambassador to Taiwan from “Director” to “Representative” and requires his confirmation by the Senate; clarifies the types of weapons the U.S. will make available to Taiwan; and designates Taiwan a “major non-NATO ally” for purposes of arms transfers.
Perhaps most importantly, the bill brings to a head a debate currently raging in the American policy community over which arms to prioritize for Taiwan, and whether, in the interest of speedy delivery, the U.S. should provide some of them free of charge.
Congress is a funny place. What the Senate should do is mark-up the Taiwan Policy Act, open it to amendment on the Senate floor, and continue through the regular order until the bill is sent to the President.
The problem is that you need floor time for this, which is never in abundance on foreign policy issues, especially as the session winds down. It also depends on the interest of the Senate Majority Leader, who will be lobbied hard by the administration to shelve the bill. As a result, if the bill sees any action at all, Congress will likely carve out its weapons-related provisions (Title II) and attach them to the annual, must-pass National Defense Authorization Act.
In the process, it will jettison the bill’s other critical provisions. Among these is an entire title imposing sanctions for future Chinese hostilities against Taiwan. Senator Sullivan’s “STAND with Taiwan” Act, now in the Banking Committee, does similar, although fittingly, in a far more punishing fashion.
Beijing needs to know the full scope of the U.S. reaction to aggression, not just the likely military response. It would be a mistake to leave behind provisions explicitly designed to enhance this deterrence with the promise to get to it next Congress.
As demonstrated by consideration of the last so-called “China bill”, eventually called “Chips-plus,” this can take a really long time with no assurances that Congress will act at all, or act in the most relevant ways.
Congress, and especially the Senate, is supposed to be the venue for the big debates about America’s future, including its foreign policy. It is only appropriate that it serve this function on Taiwan policy. More than 40 years after passage of the TRA, it’s up to Congress to prove itself capable of the sort of real, major reform that can keep China at bay. In so doing, it will help prove an even more consequential point—that it is worthy of the foreign policy powers the founders gave it.