WASHINGTON ― Lawmakers eager to boost security aid to Taiwan may soon authorize as much as $10 billion in new State Department financing for Taipei to buy U.S. weaponry. But it’s an open question whether appropriators will approve the actual dollars.
A soon-to-be-released draft 2023 National Defense Authorization Act would authorize $2 billion in aid per year over five years and another $1 billion annually in equipment from U.S. military stockpiles.
But while authorization bills can create programs, only appropriations bills have the legal authority to spend U.S. funds. And key Democratic appropriators are expressing misgivings. Given the steady pressure from Republicans to lower the State Department’s budget, some worry adding new spending on Taiwan aid would mean cuts for other areas of diplomacy, potentially including security aid to other countries.
“Some of us, including myself, expressed the concern that if we put out the big authorizing number on Taiwan, but could not meet it [with appropriations], that would send the wrong signal,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and the State Department appropriations panel, told Defense News. “We were also concerned that unless we increased the overall authorization for foreign assistance, it would eat into other important security assistance programs.”
When Congress takes up a massive 2023 NDAA reconciled between the House and Senate, expected later this month, it will include security aid provisions derived from the bipartisan Taiwan Policy Act, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee advanced 17-5 last month.
The $2 billion per year proposed for Taiwan is in Foreign Military Financing — a program that allows other countries to purchase U.S. military equipment with grants and loans. That could loom large in a State Department budget that totaled $56 billion for fiscal 2022, with roughly $6 billion for FMF. Of the 25-plus countries that receive FMF annually, the major recipients are Israel ($3.3 billion), Egypt ($1.3 billion), Jordan ($425 million).
Taiwan, whose wealth per capita was recently ranked first in Asia, is not among countries the State Department lists as FMF recipients.
Fears the State Department budget will come under pressure are especially potent as Washington prepares for split rule with a GOP-led House. Although Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress last year, Republicans managed to kill the Biden administration’s proposed 12% increase to the State Department’s topline and kept its budget flat.
Van Hollen had called for an even higher increase of nearly 21%, noting the Pentagon, whose budget came in at $782 billion this year, receives multibillion increases every year.
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, who chairs the Senate subpanel responsible for funding the State Department and foreign aid, told Defense News he supports a “more robust” U.S. security relationship with Taiwan, but the question is how.
“To the extent I have repeatedly raised some questions or concerns, one of them is: How will we pay for this?” Coons, of Delaware, said Tuesday.
Coons said the demand for new Taiwan aid comes as his subcommittee is already juggling “dramatically growing” responsibilities. That includes filling other pots of U.S. aid to counter China’s global influence and for humanitarian relief in the midst of a refugee and hunger crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine.
Exactly how Washington plans to quickly increase aid to Taiwan is not a settled matter. Coons said there’s still a “conversation underway” between the State Department, Pentagon, National Security Council and lawmakers.
“There are conversations about what are the defense needs of Taiwan,” he said. “That is distinct from, but needs to be connected to a meaningful conversation about ‘how do you best fund meeting those needs.’”
The Biden administration hasn’t fulfilled a two-month-old request from the armed services and foreign affairs committees for a list of critical capabilities Taiwan needs and whether foreign military financing, foreign military sales or drawdown authority would be the preferred means to meet those needs.
The White House had previously expressed support boosting Taiwan aid. In September, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said there were elements of the Taiwan Policy Act that concerned the White House, but said others “with respect to how we can strengthen our security assistance for Taiwan … are quite effective and robust.”
“We raised our concerns with the legislation with Congress, many of which were addressed,” said a senior administration official.
Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a champion of the Taiwan bill’s inclusion in the NDAA, said Tuesday he plans to lobby for a matching appropriation, acknowledging that it would compete against other priorities as the lame-duck Congress negotiates an omnibus appropriations bill.
“That is my position, but that fight hasn’t started yet,” Risch told Defense News. “We’ve said it, we mean it, and of course my friends on the other side of the aisle will say ‘yes, but what about childcare, we need that too,’ but that fight will be had.”
Asked if he would lobby fellow Republicans to raise the State Department’s topline to accommodate the added Taiwan FMF, Risch stopped short, saying there were “too many unknowns” to consider.
He also floated the emerging emergency supplemental spending bill for Ukraine as a potential vehicle for the Taiwan funding. But Risch acknowledged that would be a one-off solution, when the Taiwan aid authorization covers five years.
Though China has publicly set 2027 as a target date for its military to be able to pursue unification with the self-ruling island China sees as a breakaway province, the Pentagon has assessed no invasion is imminent.
Still, Risch said there is wide bipartisan backing to ramp up security aid to Taiwan now before Chinese action heads off that option.
“Everyone is of the frame of mind that, at this point, sooner is better than later. Because who knows?” Risch said. “To a greater or lesser degree, everybody has signed on to that proposition.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.