Six U.S. lawmakers visited Taiwan on Friday, expressing strong support for the island’s sovereignty and promising that the United States will help it resist efforts by the Chinese government to exert authority over what Beijing views as a part of “one China.”
The visit prompted a strong reaction from the Chinese government, which had requested that the five senators and one representative not visit Taiwan. In addition to official statements condemning the visit, the government in Beijing ordered large-scale military drills in the waters near Taiwan, including sending aircraft on combat alert patrols and conducting maritime assault drills.
Senior Colonel Shi Yi, spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater Command, said in a statement, “Those who play with fire will burn themselves. The command troops always maintain high alert and will firmly safeguard national sovereignty and security and regional peace and stability.”
The delegation included Senator Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina; Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina; Senator Robert Portman, Republican of Ohio; Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska; and Representative Ronny Jackson, Republican of Texas.
Among other things, members of the U.S. delegation criticized China for what they characterized as its continued support for Russia in the face of that country’s invasion of Ukraine. They also drew parallels between Russia’s actions and the possibility that China might attempt to assert control over Taiwan by force.
Some of the most aggressive rhetoric came from Graham, who said, “Here is my promise to you and the Taiwanese people: We are going to start making China pay a greater price for what they are doing all over the world. The support for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin must come with a price. The never-ending cyberattack on your economy and people by the Communist Chinese needs to come with a price.”
‘Every option’ available if China invades
Graham also addressed the question of whether the U.S. would take military action against China if it were to invade Taiwan.
“Every option is on the table,” Graham said. “We have a strong military, not to take other people’s property, but to protect our freedom and the freedom of the world. We’re here in this part of the world not to conquer but to be a good ally.”
He continued, saying, “The last century taught us that when good people give in to evil, you live to regret it.” Graham said that if the U.S. were to abandon Taiwan, it would “change the world fundamentally for the worse.”
In an apparent message to Beijing, he said, “To the Communist Chinese Party: We do not seek conflict. But we will fight for our values.”
Menendez continually referred to Taiwan as “a country” in his remarks, despite China’s insistence that Taiwan is not an independent state and long-standing U.S. policy to not officially recognize Taiwan as such.
At a press conference, Menendez said, “We’re here to support Taiwan. Our relationship is rock-solid. When a country, like Taiwan, has 90% of the high-end semiconductor industry, it is a country of global significance, of global economic consequence. And those who wish Taiwan ill must understand that the global community will look at that and say we cannot allow Taiwan to be negatively impacted, because the world’s interests are involved.”
When asked, Menendez said that he supported legislation before both houses of Congress that would rename the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office as the Taiwan Representative Office.
Chinese Foreign Ministry reacts
China responded harshly to the U.S. lawmakers’ visit.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, in a regularly scheduled press briefing, said, “China firmly opposes any form of official interaction between the U.S. and the Taiwan region.”
Zhao rejected the comparison that the visiting U.S. lawmakers made between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and potential Chinese action against Taiwan, claiming that such comparisons were designed to “mislead the public.”
Further, he echoed the comments from the People’s Liberation Army, saying the lawmakers’ statements amounted to “playing with fire” and suggested they could “change the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.”
Since Joe Biden took office as U.S. president in 2021, his administration has approved three separate arms sales to Taiwan to raise the island’s capacity for self-defense in case of Chinese attack.
In remarks last week, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that if China took action against Taiwan, the administration would respond with economic sanctions like those imposed on Russia after it invaded Ukraine.
The administration has been less clear about its willingness to engage in direct conflict with China over Taiwan. Biden, in a town hall event last year, seemed to suggest the U.S. would intervene militarily, only to have his comments walked back by the White House. Other than that, the administration has held to the traditional U.S. position of “strategic ambiguity,” which leaves its likely reaction to a Chinese attack on Taiwan unclear.
That ambiguity is defined by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, which states that “the United States will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities,” but it leaves open to interpretation what constitutes a sufficient capability.
Taiwanese doubt US commitment
In Taiwan, public expectations of U.S. support in the event of an invasion by China have waned considerably in recent months. In a poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation last month, just 34.5% of the Taiwanese surveyed said they believed that the U.S. would intervene militarily if China invaded, down from 65% only six months earlier.
Lawmakers in the U.S. have been aggressive in their words and actions regarding Taiwan, with dozens of legislative proposals before Congress, including some preauthorizing the U.S. president to use force to repel a Chinese invasion. It is, however, unclear how strongly the American people feel about engaging in conflict there.
Little polling on the subject is available in the U.S., but in March 2021, only 30% of respondents to a Gallup survey saw conflict between China and Taiwan as a “critical threat to U.S. vital interests.” In the same survey, 53% called the issue “important, but not critical,” and 16% said it was “not important.”