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Luria's plea to give Biden full authority to attack China is folly

The Democratic congresswoman supports legislation allowing the president to bypass Congress to defend Taiwan.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

A Democratic congresswoman wants to allow President Biden to bypass the legislative branch in order to have full authority to respond militarily in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

In an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Tuesday, Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) calls for a debate over the Republican-sponsored Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act. This proposed bill would no longer require the president to consult with Congress first before responding to a clear threat against Taiwan, as established in the long-standing Taiwan Relations Act. Under this proposed legislation, the president would be entirely free to declare war on China, without any input from America’s representatives.

The rationale for this change, Luria says, is that there wouldn’t be sufficient time for the president to consult with Congress in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan, since Beijing  would most likely strike without much — if any — warning, and could achieve its aim of seizing Taiwan before Washington  could react.

This proposed legislation is ill-conceived on many levels. First, it states that a clear threat to the security of Taiwan already exists, which implies that Congress is already authorized by the TRA to consult with the president. But the TRA states (and previous crises such as the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis provide a precedent) that it is the president who determines if such a clear security threat exists, and thus whether any consultation with Congress is needed to determine any “appropriate action.” He has yet to make such a determination regarding China’s actions. And yet Congress has apparently already made that determination for him and would grant him the authority to respond as he sees fit. In other words, under the bill, Congress would be dispensing with its consultation authority before any legitimate reason for doing so had been determined by the president. That is contrary to existing law and pretty reckless.

Second, the bill assumes that the U.S would have insufficient warning to consult with Congress if China were to attack. Luria states that such consultation might take “days or months.” This is at the very least highly debatable. Under most if not all conceivable contingencies, U.S. intelligence would have considerable warning of a Chinese attack. China cannot put together an invasion or blockade force in hours. It could, however, strike Taiwan with missiles and carry out fifth column attacks on the island with little warning. But unless Taiwan were to capitulate immediately under such attacks, there is little doubt that any consultation with Congress under such conditions would be anything but quick and in time. And if Taiwan were to capitulate quickly and sue for peace, Congress should most definitely be consulted as to what to do, if anything. The U.S. has already wasted enormous blood and treasure elsewhere in quixotic efforts to prop up failed or failing regimes with military force. 

Third, suspending active Congressional involvement in a U.S. decision to employ force against Taiwan undermines the War Power Act that stipulates that the Congress must be involved in any decision to employ U.S. forces in hostilities with a foreign power. Under the proposed bill, Congress would yet again be abrogating its authority to assist in determining whether the American people wish to engage in a foreign conflict, in this case with a nuclear power. 

Fourth, the proposed bill employs unenforceable “senses of Congress” and other language that would nonetheless stand as empty and unnecessary provocations during a period of growing tensions with Beijing. These include a futile “demand” that Beijing renounce the right to use force against Taiwan, a call for Washington to essentially resume full U.S.-Taiwan military relations and conduct military exercises with the island’s forces, and for the president to visit Taiwan. All such totally futile or reckless, feel-good gestures would simply reinforce the Chinese commitment to increasing their own signals of resolve while at the same time reducing their confidence in Washington’s commitment to its One China policy. Even though such measures are highly unlikely to be adopted by the president, they nonetheless signal to Beijing that Washington is moving in directions that would directly undermine that policy.   

What the U.S. Congress needs to do with regard to Taiwan is to stop framing the existing problem as a simple question of military deterrence and rapid response, and start thinking how to inject greater credibility into Washington’s long-standing and thus far effective One China policy. Those in Beijing who favor use of force are aided in their argument by signs of American abandonment of this policy, which undergirds what stability remains in the Sino-US relationship.Yes, deterrence is needed, but only if it is combined with credible reassurances can it have the desired effect. 

It is certainly not helping matters that China is doing things that alarm and alienate both Taiwan’s residents and many Americans. But Congress needs to recognize that it is having precisely the same effect on China by proposing such provocative and reckless legislation.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with Sailors as they depart the guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg (CG 64) in 2011. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gary Granger Jr.)
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