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Politics & Security

Inviting Taiwan to RIMPAC? Best to Consider the Fine Print

These days, China is out for blood. It wants Taiwan, but it won’t stop with Taiwan.

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RIMPAC 2020.

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President Biden just signed this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA 2022) after Congress passed the bill. NDAA 2022 specifically calls for inviting Taiwan’s military to the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022 exercise. 

The US Navy hosts RIMPAC in Hawaii every two years and it is billed as the world’s largest maritime exercise. 

RIMPAC usually includes upwards of twenty navies, mostly from the Indo-Pacific region, but often a few outsiders. The 2020 exercise was scaled back. However, in 2018 Germany and Israel participated. 

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) was invited and attended in 2014 and 2016 – but had its invitation “withdrawn” in 2018 – partly owing to US-China tensions and partly owing to Chinese behavior at RIMPAC itself.

Taiwan has never been invited to attend. However, this year appears to be the first time language has survived the final NDAA draft calling for Taiwan to be included in RIMPAC and been signed into law. 

The Taiwan military’s attendance at RIMPAC would be a big deal, not only as a sign of US (and other nations’) support for Taiwan, but also as a move to break the 40-plus years of isolation that have stunted Taiwan’s military capabilities.

A Sense of Congress 

But before assuming Taiwan will be there, it’s best to read the NDAA’s fine print.

You see, the language is clear enough – 

It is the sense of Congress that….the United States should continue to support the development of capable, ready, and modern defense forces necessary for Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability, including by….conducting practical training and military exercises with Taiwan, including, as appropriate, inviting Taiwan to participate in the Rim of the Pacific exercise conducted in 2022…

Clear language indeed, but here’s the problem: It is the “sense of the Congress” that Taiwan should be invited. That’s different than Congress ordering that Taiwan be invited – and threatening consequences for ignoring Capitol Hill.

A “sense of the Congress” resolution does not require the Department of Defense, State Department, or even the White House to actually do anything.

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This writer once heard a recently retired US State Department official point this out – almost derisively – to an audience in Taipei. As if anyone was naive enough to think otherwise.

He was at least polite enough not to use another long-time observer’s description of “sense of Congress” resolutions as akin to the emissions put out by a field of cows. 

The “sense of Congress” in this year’s NDAA 2022 also includes other support for Taiwan: ensuring Taiwan has adequate weaponry and asymmetric capabilities to defend itself, and most importantly that the US military conduct joint training with Taiwan’s armed forces. 

But previous NDAAs included similar language. For example the 2018 NDAA – during the Trump administration – called for inviting Taiwan’s military to participate in military exercises and mentioned the US Air Force’s Red Flag air-to-air combat exercise. It also called for conducting bilateral naval exercises with the Taiwan Navy. 

None of that happened. It was just the ‘sense of Congress’ after all.

Not nearly enough has been done, especially on the “joint training” and “invite to exercises” requirements that are politically, psychologically, and operationally indispensable if Taiwan (and the United States) are to have a chance against the People’s Liberation Army. 

On joint training, there has been next to nothing, besides two very small platoon sized training events between Taiwan Marines and US Marines in Hawaii (2017) and Guam (2021).

Can State and Defense Ignore Congress?

So can American Defense and State Department officials and administration staffers just ignore Congress? 

Apparently so.

While Congress – on both sides of the aisle – is talking a good game over Taiwan, and has for a few years now, it knows the difference between a sense of Congress resolution and something that gets the bureaucracy’s attention.

Thus, it gets the (lack of) attention one expects.

One National Security Council Asia Director during the Obama administration wasn’t exactly a ball of fire when it came to Taiwan. Indeed, after leaving his post, Evan Medeiros gave a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. His sage business advice to US businessmen: Do what aligns with Xi Jinping’s objectives. 

And the State Department official who nearly became Asia-Pacific head in the Trump Administration – but was stymied by charges of being soft on China – gave a talk in Shanghai after retiring. In so many words, she advised the Chinese Communists to “wait till another administration” (after Trump) and they’d have a more accommodating administration.

Even during the Trump administration, which was better on China than all its predecessors put together, Taiwan’s invitation to RIMPAC never came through. Nor could it break the Taiwan military’s isolation and do necessary bilateral training. It squandered an excellent opportunity in this regard – apparently out of spite that Taiwan was not following Administration orders in configuring its defense. Such is the power of mid-level officials.

What NDAA 2022 Requires

When it comes to Taiwan, NDAA 2022 only actually requires four things: 

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  • An annual DOD-led assessment of Taiwan’s defense capabilities and current threats. 
  • The DOD is required to draft a “plan” to support Taiwan while dealing with the issues in the assessment. 
  • Within 180 days the DOD is to submit a report to Congress about the assessment and the plan. 
  • By February 15, 2022, the DOD must brief the Congress on the feasibility of enhanced cooperation between the US National Guard and Taiwan Armed Forces. 

This latter requirement is new and potentially useful. But it is still just a feasibility study.

Assessments, reports, and studies are the Pentagon’s bread butter – as is avoiding doing things it doesn’t want to do. 

Real Meaning of Taiwan at RIMPAC

So, back to RIMPAC. What are some of the excuses that will be trotted out to lose the invite in the mail?

Won’t China be angry if Taiwan attends? 

Yes. But China is always angry. Anyway, if one is truly concerned about the threat posed by an aggressive and expansionist China, doing something Beijing objects to might be an indication one is doing something that needs to be done.

And might inviting Taiwan cause other nations to drop out of RIMPAC out of fear of China’s wrath?

Maybe. But it’s best to get countries on record, and now. If they’re unwilling to stand up on this relatively easy matter, they certainly won’t find a backbone when Chinese Communist pressure on Taiwan (and their own country) really gets rough.

And that goes for the United States too.

These days, China is out for blood. It wants Taiwan, but it won’t stop with Taiwan. 

Inviting Taiwan to RIMPAC, or not, will tell just how “rock solid” Team Biden’s support for Taiwan is. To give an idea of where we are now, currently Taiwan officials based in Hawaii aren’t even allowed to watch RIMPAC informally.

One might indeed argue that President Biden owns the Taiwan issue, now that he signed the NDAA. But every President has owned Taiwan. They’ve just, by and large, preferred to avoid the issue beyond what was unavoidable and what the PRC would allow. 

Continue down that road and at some point RIMPAC itself might become too inconvenient. 

Taiwan, a democratic friend and partner, deserves to be at RIMPAC. Otherwise, Washington’s professions of commitment bring to mind that field full of cows. 

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Author: Grant Newsham

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