The US Senate has passed a bill that could change and greatly improve military relations with Taiwan by allowing active-duty flag and general officers to visit the nation.
The policy switch comes in an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that won Senate support with a vote of 71 to 25.
A final version of the bill may emerge from a House-Senate conference as early as next month.
The Taiwan amendment is expected to survive because the issue has robust bipartisan support in the US House of Representatives and the Senate has already passed it.
US President Barack Obama has pledged to veto the bill because of a fundamental disagreement about funding, but the Senate vote in favor was large enough to be veto-proof and the House vote of 269-151 was close to being veto-proof.
If the bill does become law with the Taiwan amendment intact, it is certain to upset Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), who is due to visit Washington in September.
Introduced by US Senator Dan Coats, the amendment instructs the US secretary of defense to carry out a program of exchanges of senior military officers and senior officials between the US and Taiwan designed to “improve military-to-military relations.”
Currently, the Pentagon relies on retired flag and general officers to visit Taiwan, to appease China, a statement from Coats’ office said.
“It is difficult for military officials in both Taiwan and the US to discuss contingency responses when active duty US generals and flag officers are not able to meet regularly with their Taiwanese counterparts,” it added.
Coats said that he did not believe in tying the military’s hands, but that it was important for the Senate to express concern about the current policy of refusing to allow exchanges.
“The armed forces of Taiwan are a very valuable partner of the US military and without visiting Taiwan, active duty American personnel are not able to familiarize themselves with Taiwan’s command centers, terrain and operational capabilities,” he said.
He also said that a change in the policy would encourage Taiwan to make increased investments in its national defense, especially in light of “belligerent behavior” demonstrated by China.
“Active-duty US generals and flag officers have to be able to visit Taiwan and see its military in action in order to gain a better understanding of Taiwan’s armed forces and the weapons they require for self-defense,” Coats said.
“My proposal simply states that the [US] Department of Defense should undertake a program of senior military officer exchanges with Taiwan, but does not require such exchanges,” he added.
According to the amendment, an “exchange” is an activity, exercise, event or observation opportunity between members of the armed forces and officials of the Pentagon and armed forces personnel and officials of Taiwan.
The amendment states that the exchanges should focus on threat analysis, military doctrine, force planning and logistical support.
They should also include intelligence collection and analysis, operational tactics, techniques and procedures, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Anna Kao (高安) expressed the government’s gratitude for the move, which she said would enhance bilateral relations and cooperation in the area of security.