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Rep. Ro Khanna on bipartisan visit to Taiwan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.S. is helping Taiwan beef up its defenses in preparation for a possible attack from China, from adding more American military advisers to advising the Taiwanese military on what armaments to buy. This all comes as tensions between Washington and Beijing have heightened in the wake of the downing of a Chinese balloon. And amidst all this, California Congressman Ro Khanna led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Taipei this month where he met with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, among others. Khanna, a Democrat, is a member of the newly formed Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party. And he supports the one-China policy. So when we spoke this morning, I focused on his visit and whether that visit might have consequences for U.S.-China relations.

Some might argue that these high-profile visits to Taiwan by politicians from the U.S. can be interpreted by Beijing as a provocation. I mean, you know, we all saw after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan last summer, the Chinese government ramped up military drills in the Taiwan Strait and incursions into Taiwan's airspace. So I am wondering, are you at all concerned that a visit by yet another congressional delegation to Taiwan might further provoke Beijing?

RO KHANNA: I don't think so, and fortunately, so far, it has not. I informed the Chinese ambassador, as well as the foreign minister, who I know because he was the previous ambassador of my visit, and I said, look, I plan to go to Taiwan because I believe in the economic partnership with the United States. I believe in their democracy. But I affirm the one-China policy that has been our legacy since President Carter and since the Shanghai communique negotiated by Nixon. And I plan to come to China at some point in the future. I believe that we could avoid provocation if American politicians don't get ahead of their skis and don't start saying things that Taiwanese politicians are not saying.

CHANG: Can you explain, though, like, how congressional visits like yours bolster the one-China policy?

KHANNA: Well, there are several things that congressional visits like mine do. One is it's important to figure out how we bring semiconductor manufacturing back to the United States. We made a big mistake by losing Morris Chang. He's an American expat. He was the No. 2 person at Texas Instruments. Texas Instruments passed him over partly because he was of Asian origin. And so he goes to Taiwan and sets up the entire semiconductor industry. I met with him and met with others to understand what the challenges of manufacturing in the United States were and how we could make sure TSMC succeeds in Arizona.

CHANG: That's Morris Chang's company.

KHANNA: Second, I think it's important for American politicians to go there so we understand what the people of Taiwan want. They do not want, and their rhetoric does not espouse independence. They are fine with the status quo. They simply want peace. And they want help in terms of increasing their defense. This is across the board. And American politicians can help do that. And they want engagement with China, which also America can help facilitate.

CHANG: Yeah. I want to move on to the semiconductor industry, which you mentioned. You represent much of Silicon Valley. Now, President Biden has made it very, very clear that he wants to significantly boost the semiconductor industry here in the U.S. So can you tell us why Taiwanese semiconductor companies should want to help the U.S. do that, despite the fact that tensions between the U.S. and China keep growing?

KHANNA: Well, I think Taiwanese companies will want some of the incentives that we've provided in the Chips and Science Act that I helped co-write. The Chips and Science Act provides grants and provides tax incentives for any company that brings production to the United States, and TSMC is taking advantage of that. But a lot of the legacy chips, the chips that actually go into your cars, dishwashers, refrigerators, those are still being produced in China or offshore. And so what I see is that TSMC is going to continue to be at the leading edge of chip production and be used by companies like Apple in the iPhone or latest devices, and that there's going to be an intermediate market that Intel and other American companies can fulfill. And it really will be the complement of Taiwan and the United States that has robust semiconductor production.

CHANG: OK. I want to move on now to the U.S.'s approach to Taiwan, this so-called strategic ambiguity. How comfortable have you been personally with President Biden's repeated statements that the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion?

KHANNA: I think we should stick to President Carter's formulation of the one-China policy and the Taiwan Relation Act, and that is that the United States would provide assistance in the support of Taiwan if there was a violation by China of the peaceful status quo. What that support looks like, I think, is purposely ambiguous. And partly, it's circumstantial. Everyone assumes that China would invade Taiwan in an amphibious landing. I actually don't think that would be the most logical step that China would take. A far more plausible and concerning step could be if they had a blockade stopping any energy supply coming in to Taiwan. And they did that for a few days. What if they did that for a few weeks? How would we support Taiwan in that context? So I think it's very context specific and the reason we haven't spelled out the specificity.

CHANG: Well, regardless of what form any military aggression by China on Taiwan would take, do you believe the U.S. military should be directly involved if there were a military aggression by China on Taiwan?

KHANNA: I believe we should follow the Taiwan Relation Act, which is to say we would support Taiwan in its defense and leave the specifics to the commander in chief at that time.

CHANG: Do you think the U.S.'s approach to Taiwan, so-called strategic ambiguity, do you think that is a sustainable approach indefinitely?

KHANNA: I do. I think the one-China policy and strategic ambiguity has stood as well for over 50 years. It's preserved the peace. It's allowed Taiwan to emerge as a thriving economy. And contemporary politicians, we ought to be very careful before throwing a model out that has really served well. Now, it may need tweaks. We have to recognize the heightened tensions. But I think that formula has really done a good job.

CHANG: Well, your visit, you know, it was a bipartisan delegation. And the select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party that you serve on was created by House Republicans. Do you think helping Taiwan attracts the same strong bipartisan congressional support that's been key in supplying aid to Ukraine?

KHANNA: I do. It's bipartisan in the United States that we need Taiwan to develop a defense capability to deter any potential military incursion. People recognize that a war in the Taiwan Straits would be devastating. It also, by the way, transcends party lines in Taiwan. Whether it's the DPP, KMT or TPP, the three leading parties, they all believe that Taiwan needs to improve its defense. So this is a place I think we can make concrete progress.

CHANG: What about bipartisan support here in the U.S., in Congress for a potential military intervention by the U.S. if there were any military aggression by China on Taiwan?

KHANNA: I don't think it will come to that. I think if we build Taiwan's defense capability and we affirm the one-China policy and engage with China, then we can further peace in that region. And that, in my view, is also shared by a lot of the Taiwanese politicians. And that's why I think it's helpful for American politicians to go to Taiwan. They say, look, they've been living with the Communist China Party for decades. They've seen the ups and the downs. And they're very hopeful that war can be avoided.

CHANG: Democrat Ro Khanna of California speaking to us about his trip to Taiwan with a bipartisan congressional delegation. Thank you very much for joining us.

KHANNA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elena Burnett
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.