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Adoption of US defense bill opens way for Taiwan invite to naval exercise

MH-60R helicopter takes off from Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89) in Taiwan Strait. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cody Beam)
December 31, 2021

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. President Joe Biden has signed a defense policy bill for fiscal year 2022 that would help boost Taiwan’s defense capabilities and permit the island to be invited to the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercise this summer.

Both chambers of the U.S. Congress earlier voted in support of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which defines the country’s defense policy and budget. Biden signed the US$768.2 billion-act into law on Monday.

The bill contains specific sections on defense relations with Taiwan and suggests “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.”

RIMPAC is the world’s largest multi-national maritime warfare exercise held every two years since 1974. Before that it was held annually. The exercise is hosted by the U.S. Navy’s Indo-Pacific Command and joined by navies from about two dozen countries.

A number of Southeast Asian countries have been invited. China took part in 2014 and 2016, when U.S.-China relations were more cordial.

Taiwan has yet to comment on the prospect of joining RIMPAC – a step that would rile China. Earlier in December, before the NDAA became law, Defense Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng indicated that Taiwan needed to have an internal discussion on the applicability of the bill to Taiwan. He said Taiwan would utilize and evaluate what it could benefit from.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, said an invitation to Taiwan to attend RIMPAC would bear a great significance, and not only in the defense terms.

“Unlike visits to Taiwan by U.S. policymakers, and vice versa, as well as the defense exchanges that take place much behind the scenes, RIMPAC is a high-profile international naval exercise that’ll significantly raise Taiwan’s profile,” Koh said.

“If it’s allowed to send not just observers but take part as a full participant – meaning sending ships, and this will become a major show of flag opportunity for Taiwan,” he added.

But Koh warned that if Taiwan is invited as a full participant, “some other countries may decide not to participate out of fear of offending Beijing. So the talk about having Taiwan in RIMPAC is more complicated than we imagine.”

Bolstering Taiwan self-defense

China considers Taiwan a breakaway province and vows to reunite it with the mainland, by force if necessary. Chinese military activity in the Taiwan Strait has intensified in recent months, with hundreds of military aircraft sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in what observers see as an intimidation campaign.

Ely Ratner, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this month that “bolstering Taiwan’s self-defenses is an urgent task and an essential feature of deterrence.”

Some other sections in the newly signed bill recommend building up Taiwan’s asymmetric defenses, including “coastal defense missiles, naval mines, anti-aircraft capabilities, cyber defenses, and special operations forces.” Asymmetric defense refers to the ability to defend against a more powerful adversary.

The bill says “it shall be the policy of the United States to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist a fait accompli that would jeopardize the security of the people on Taiwan.”

The term “fait accompli” refers to the resort to force by China to “invade and seize control of Taiwan before the United States can respond effectively.”

The U.S. secretary of defense is requested to submit a report by Feb. 15, 2022, on the “feasibility and advisability” of enhanced cooperation between the U.S. National Guard and Taiwan.

Until now, the U.S. military hasn’t conducted any bilateral and joint exercise with Taiwan but it was reported in October that a number of U.S. military trainers have been deployed in the island for at least a year.

U.S. troops have not been permanently based on the island since Washington established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979.

The U.S. is Taiwan’s largest arms supplier with agreed deals worth more than $23 billion since 2010.