‘Strategic Ambiguity’ on Taiwan Apparent as White House Walks Back Biden Comments 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday appeared to walk back President Joe Biden’s statement on Thursday that the United States was committed to defending Taiwan should it come under Chinese attack.

“The president was not announcing any change in our policy, nor has he made a decision to change our policy,” Psaki said during a White House news briefing. “Our defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act.”

The 1979 Taiwan Relations Act states that the U.S. will provide arms for Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability. It does not say the U.S. would intervene militarily to protect Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. 

Psaki’s statement stands in contradiction to Biden’s comment at a CNN town hall Thursday night. When asked if the U.S. would come to the defense of Taiwan, Biden said, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.”

When asked by VOA whether the president simply misspoke or is sending a signal to Beijing, Psaki reiterated that “his policy has not changed.” In what appeared to be an attempt to calm increased tensions following the president’s comment, she echoed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s statement earlier Friday: “Nobody wants to see cross-strait issues come to blows, certainly not President Biden, and there’s no reason that it should.” 

The conflicting statements may well be in line with Washington’s long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” on defending Taiwan. Still, Beijing, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, warned Washington to refrain from encouraging its independence. 

“We urge the U.S. to earnestly abide by the one-China principle and stipulations in the three China-U.S. joint communiques, be prudent with its words and actions on the Taiwan question, and avoid sending wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces, lest it should seriously damage China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin earlier Friday.

Wang reiterated that “there is no room for China to compromise or make concessions” when it comes to sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

U.S.-China relations have been strained amid Beijing’s increased military activity in the Taiwan Strait and its recent hypersonic missile test. 

Strategic ambiguity

This is not the first time Biden said the U.S. would defend Taiwan if necessary. During an August interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, Biden said the U.S. made a “sacred commitment” to respond to action against NATO allies, “same with Japan, same with South Korea, same with Taiwan.”

The defense of Taiwan, unlike that of formal treaty allies Japan and South Korea, is not explicitly stated by the U.S. After each of Biden’s remarks on defending the island, his administration has walked it back. 

While Biden may not intend to signal a change in the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan, his statements suggest that U.S. policy may have shifted informally toward a firmer commitment to Taiwan’s security. 

The comments may be off the cuff, but they are telling, said Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. “If China invaded Taiwan, it would be up to the president to make the final decision about what we should do, and it seems that Biden’s instinct is to defend Taiwan.” 

Biden’s remarks may also be intended to signal that the U.S. military option is not off the table, said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at Center for American Progress.

“I think it was a clear and smart warning sign from the president to China.”

Chinese hypersonic missile

The Financial Times recently reported that in late July, China conducted a test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, stunning American officials. Beijing has denied the report, saying it carried out a routine test of a space vehicle, not a missile. 

Hypersonic glide vehicles are launched from a rocket into the upper atmosphere before gliding to a target at speeds of more than Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, about 6,200 kilometers per hour. This is slower than a ballistic missile but no less dangerous because its speed allows for a lower, adjustable trajectory that makes tracking these missiles difficult.

On Wednesday, when asked by VOA whether he was concerned about Chinese hypersonic missiles, Biden answered “yes.” 

U.S. officials have also stated concerns. Austin said earlier this week that Washington was closely watching China’s development of this advanced weapons system. And on Monday, Robert Wood, U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, said this type of technology is “worrisome” because the U.S. has not had to face it before.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy and Army tested hypersonic weapon component prototypes that the Pentagon called “successful.” But on Thursday, its booster rocket carrying a hypersonic weapon failed, people briefed on the test result told Reuters.

Analysts say that while China’s space activities are certainly a cause for concern, they reflect an already ongoing arms race. 

“Beijing appears unwilling to accept a situation in which China lags in nuclear capabilities, which might impact both nuclear and conventional balances of power,” said Zack Cooper, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “This new capability could embolden China to take more aggressive actions in non-nuclear areas.” 

Cooper noted the U.S. does not need to respond in kind since Washington already has robust capability to strike the Chinese homeland. But the administration must now seriously consider the possibility of Chinese strikes on the American homeland in a military conflict, particularly at a time when China is also ramping up other capabilities such as conventional as well as nuclear-armed submarines and nuclear-capable bombers.

“That is a new reality, and one with which we are still coming to grips,” Cooper said.

In light of this increased Chinese threat, some analysts say that Biden’s remarks on Taiwan are an effective deterrent. 

“The most likely path to war is that (Chinese) Chairman Xi miscalculates; he assumes he can get away with attacking Taiwan without U.S. interference when in fact he cannot,” said Kroenig. “He (Biden) is making it clear to Xi that an attack on Taiwan would mean a big war with the United States and, therefore, not worth the effort.” 

Carla Babb contributed to this report.

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Confirmation Backlog Leaves Biden’s State Department Badly Understaffed

Nine months after taking office, President Joe Biden has seen only 20 of his appointments to the State Department confirmed by the Senate, with nearly half of the 167 American ambassadorships empty and dozens of key policy positions staffed by unconfirmed officials serving in an “acting” role. 

The number of empty desks at the State Department is partly Biden’s own fault, according to analysts. He was slow to nominate candidates for dozens of the 264 positions at State that require confirmation by the Senate, and still hasn’t named 57 of them.

However, many of the key positions remain unfilled because the process of gaining the approval of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has taken many nominees months to navigate.

Finally, sitting at the end of the gauntlet, is Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, who has been using Senate procedures to prevent many non-controversial nominees from receiving a prompt up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. Cruz contends that the Biden administration is in flagrant violation of the law, because it has refused to enforce sanctions on a Russian natural gas pipeline. 

In addition to Cruz, Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley has also blocked a number of Biden’s nominees. 

‘Geometric level of incompetence’ 

“The administration has not covered itself with glory at the pace of its nominations,” said Ronald E. Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. “The Senate multiplies the problem by not moving them. Cruz then raises it to a geometric level of incompetence with his holds, and so they all reinforce each other.” 

Experts worry that the lack of confirmed senior staff is hobbling the Biden administration’s ability to conduct day-to-day diplomacy, and leaving many worried that it would be unable to respond adequately to a severe global crisis. 

“It is undoubtedly diminishing the capability of our State Department, and therefore, our country’s national security,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit good government organization that tracks the nomination process closely. “It’s a big deal. And that’s not to diminish the acting officials in jobs across the State Department. They are great people, but they’re not set up for success.” 

Neumann agreed that extensive delays in filling key posts is “quite damaging” to operations. 

A former assistant secretary of state who also held three ambassadorships, Neumann said, “Not having your senior team means you don’t have the people that are going to give you the best advice. And it also means that the acting people … are going to be a little more hesitant about pushing back against things they think are dumb.” 

The current state of play 

In total, Biden has sent 106 State Department nominations to the Senate, according to the Partnership for Public Service. Twenty of those have been confirmed, and another 45 have been cleared by the Foreign Relations Committee and are awaiting a final floor vote by the full Senate. 

Biden’s 41 remaining nominees are lost somewhere in the limbo of the confirmation process, attending confirmation hearings or preparing answers to enormous numbers of written questions directed at them by members of the Senate. 

Candidates for ambassadorships have been moving particularly slowly. To date only one of Biden’s picks for an ambassadorship — the nomination of former Senator Ken Salazar to be ambassador to Mexico — has been approved. 

Of the 167 ambassadorships the Partnership for Public Service tracks, only 88 are filled, and 87 of those are “holdover” appointments who were confirmed prior to Biden’s taking office. 

Cruz controls 

Senator Cruz has been in a months-long fight with the Biden administration over its decision to waive congressionally mandated sanctions on Nord Stream 2, a controversial pipeline that delivers natural gas from Russia to Europe.

Cruz points to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, a law that passed Congress with near-unanimous support in 2017, and included language that said the president “shall” continue to enforce sanctions against Russia, including those on the pipeline.

President Donald Trump signed the legislation, though he simultaneously issued a signing statement in which he argued that the law’s elimination of the president’s discretion in enforcing the sanctions was unconstitutional. 

Cruz has relented on some specific nominations, and he has issued a standing offer to release his holds if the Biden administration resumes enforcement of the sanctions.

But Cruz has not been alone. Senator Hawley has said that he will continue blocking State Department nominees until the department’s entire senior leadership, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, resigns. His reason for demanding the resignations is the administration’s highly criticized handling of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this summer. 

A procedural blockade 

While it simplifies matters to say that Cruz and Hawley are “blocking” a vote on Biden’s nominees, it isn’t precisely accurate. 

When the Senate operates through what is known as “regular order,” issues before the body progress on a slow path to a final vote on the floor. That path includes several preliminary votes to allow a measure to move from one step in the process to the next. This can take hours, and if the more than 1,200 positions in the federal government that require Senate confirmation were each subjected to it, it could take years to clear the backlog. 

To speed things up, the Senate uses “unanimous consent” agreements to move whole batches of nominees all at once. These agreements, as their name suggests, require every senator to agree to suspend the requirements of regular order. 

What Cruz and Hawley are doing is refusing their consent to suspend regular order when it comes to State Department nominees, forcing Democrats to go through the full process for each of Biden’s nominees. In fact, the Senate’s Democratic leadership has done that for a handful of Biden nominees, but has not been willing to set aside every other item on its agenda in order to concentrate on the State Department. 

On September 28, as the Senate was pushing a handful of nominees over the finish line, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, of New Jersey, made nine consecutive requests for unanimous consent on pending nominations, including several ambassadorships. Senator Hawley objected to each of them. 


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US House Votes to Hold Trump Adviser Bannon in Contempt

The U.S. House of Representatives voted Thursday to hold Steve Bannon, one of former President Donald Trump’s longtime advisers, in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with a congressional inquiry into the January 6 rioting at the U.S. Capitol. 

The House voted 229-202, with a handful of Republican lawmakers, including Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both members of the panel conducting the investigation, joining the Democratic majority in the House in voting against Bannon. 

The citation will now be sent to the federal prosecutor in Washington for presentation to a grand jury for possible indictment of Bannon. He could, if convicted, be sentenced to up to a year in prison, but contempt of Congress charges are unusual and rarely result in prison time.

The House debated the contempt citation for more than hour before voting. Democrats on the investigative committee argued that Bannon should not be allowed to ignore their subpoena for his testimony about his role in the mayhem at the Capitol and his conversations with Trump. 

“We cannot let this man flout the laws with impunity,” said Representative Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the investigative committee.

Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland, another Democrat, told lawmakers, “In America, when you’re subpoenaed, you show up. You cannot blow off a subpoena.” 

But one Republican opposed to the contempt citation, Representative Jim Banks of Indiana, contended the committee members were “abusing their power to put [Bannon] in prison” and accused the panel of conducting “a sham investigation.” 

A vocal Trump supporter, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, said the investigation “is really about getting President Trump.” 

The riot unfolded nine months ago as lawmakers were certifying that Trump had lost last year’s election to Democrat Joe Biden, who was inaugurated as the country’s 46th president two weeks later.

The committee investigating the insurrection voted earlier this week to initiate the contempt charges, saying Bannon was the only witness who had completely refused to testify. The committee said Bannon spoke to Trump before the rioting and promoted the January 6 protest, after which about 800 Trump supporters stormed into the Capitol. 

Just ahead of the rampage, at a rally near the White House, Trump urged supporters to “fight like hell” to block certification of Biden’s victory. Some of those attendees entered the Capitol, vandalized the building, ransacked congressional offices and fought with police. More than 600 have been charged with an array of offenses. The chaos left five people dead.

Trump has sought to stymie the committee’s investigation of what precipitated the rioting and his role in it. He has urged Bannon and other former aides subpoenaed by the committee to reject its requests, claiming executive privilege for White House documents. Bannon was Trump’s chief strategist at the White House through the first seven months of 2017 and has remained one of his most vocal supporters.

Trump filed a lawsuit Monday, alleging the committee made an illegal, unfounded and overly broad request for his White House records.

Biden’s White House has argued that Trump has no legitimate privilege claim.

“The former president’s actions represented a unique — and existential — threat to our democracy that can’t be swept under the rug,” spokesman Michael Gwin said. “The constitutional protections of executive privilege should not be used to shield information that reflects a clear and apparent effort to subvert the Constitution itself.”

Senate Republicans blocked the creation of an independent commission to probe the mayhem, a panel that would have been modeled on the one that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

In response, the Democratic-controlled House then created the nine-member investigative panel, with seven Democrats, along with Cheney and Kinzinger, both of whom have been vocal Trump critics.

In July, the panel heard vivid, detailed accounts from four police officers who encountered the rioters inside the Capitol on January 6 but has not heard more public testimony since then.

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Biden Ties Legislative Agenda to MLK Push for Racial Justice

President Joe Biden on Thursday tied his legislative priorities on voting rights, police reform and climate change to Martin Luther King Jr.’s push for racial justice as he marked the 10th anniversary of the opening of the civil rights leader’s memorial on the National Mall. 

Biden, introduced by Vice President Kamala Harris, sought to reassure his supporters that he wouldn’t let up the fight as he works to muscle his massive social spending bill through a divided Congress. Invoking King, Biden said the country was still working to live up to those ideals as a nation and had reached an inflection point on issues including fighting voting restrictions. 

“I know that progress does not come fast enough,” Biden said. “It never has.” 

But he reiterated that protecting the right to vote was central to his administration. “I know the stakes. You know the stakes. This is far from over,” he said. 

Biden spoke at the memorial a day after Senate Republicans blocked debate on Democrats’ elections legislation that they tout as a powerful counterweight to new voting restrictions passing in conservative-controlled states. Biden has promised to push for the legislation, but supporters are growing impatient that he has not embraced changing Senate rules to end the filibuster to break through the logjam. 

Biden also promised to “continue to fight for real police reform legislation,” which has stalled out in Congress after bipartisan talks collapsed this summer. 

Highlighting his agenda of social spending, which remains the subject of heated intraparty negotiations, Biden said the bill would cut prescription drug costs, reduce poverty and fight housing discrimination. 

“We can afford to do this,” Biden said. “We can’t afford not to do this.”

Biden is hoping to rally Democrats around an agreement on that legislation before he departs for an international climate summit next week. 

The memorial was dedicated in the fall of 2011 and is the first honor for an African American on the National Mall. Located on Independence Avenue along the Tidal Basin, the memorial features a huge likeness of King carved out of stone and a separate wall etched with some of his most notable quotes. 

Recalling the struggles of King’s time, Biden said in his speech that white nationalism still poses a threat to the nation and that, in his view, it inspired the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. Biden said people of his generation always thought that hate would go away. 

“But it doesn’t,” he said. “It only hides until some seemingly legitimate person breathes some oxygen under the rocks where they’re hiding and gives it some breath.” 

In a reference to former President Donald Trump, Biden said, “We had a president who appealed to the prejudice.” He added, “We cannot and must not give hate any safe harbor.” 

Harris, for her part, praised King as a prophet and said the monument “is dedicated to a man who lived among us.”

“This monument, whatever your age, is dedicated to a man whose voice we still hear, whose words still echo not only across this city, but throughout our country and our world,” she added.

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Lone Democratic Senator Blocks Biden’s Climate Agenda as COP26 Nears

With the U.N. Climate Change Conference set to begin in less than two weeks, a vital piece of the Biden administration’s climate agenda is in danger of dying in the U.S. Senate, at the hands of a member of the president’s own party.

Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat who represents the state of West Virginia, has said he will not support the most important clean energy provisions in the administration’s “Build Back Better” package of infrastructure and social spending programs. Because the Democrats have only 50 seats in the 100-member Senate, and expect zero votes from Republicans, Manchin can kill the entire bill by withholding his vote.

Last week, he indicated he would do just that if the Clean Energy Performance Program, considered the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s climate plan, were part of the bill. The CEPP would reward electricity producers that begin converting to renewable energy at a rate of 4% per year or greater, and penalize those that do not.

The economy of Manchin’s home state is disproportionately reliant on fossil fuel, so oil and gas firms, coal mining operations and natural gas pipeline companies all wield significant political muscle. The coal industry in West Virginia would be particularly hurt by the CEPP, because 90% of the electricity produced in the state comes from coal-fired power plants.

This week, Manchin also rejected a different effort to meet the administration’s emission reduction goals, this time by imposing a tax on carbon. To the frustration of many in his party, Manchin has not offered any alternatives that would come close to the kind of impact on emissions that the Biden administration is seeking.

Bold promises

On his first day as president, Biden announced that the U.S. would rejoin the Paris Agreement, a climate accord that his predecessor, Republican Donald Trump, had exited. In April, Biden announced that his goal was to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases that cause climate change to between 50% and 52% of 2005 levels.

Experts say the 4% annual increase in electricity generated by renewables required by the CEPP is essential to meeting the emissions reduction goal.

The bold promise was meant to demonstrate renewed U.S. leadership in the global effort to fight climate change, and was made with an eye on next month’s U.N. climate summit, also known as COP26. Recently, the administration announced it would be sending 13 members of Biden’s Cabinet to the summit, which will be held in Glasgow, Scotland, demonstrating a very high level of commitment spanning the breadth of the federal government.

Empty-handed at COP 26?

But Manchin’s unwillingness to budge on the climate issue leaves the president in danger of traveling to Glasgow with little, other than good intentions, to show for his first 10 months in office.

Other Democrats in Congress have warned of the danger of failing to take significant action. Former U.S. Senator John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, told The Associated Press it would compound the reputational damage the U.S. suffered when Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, told The Guardian newspaper it would make the U.S. delegation look “ridiculous,” adding, “It would be bad for U.S. leadership, bad for the talks and disastrous for the climate. Just disastrous.”

Manchin’s claims

Manchin has claimed the energy industry is making the change to renewables on its own, and that it makes little sense to spend taxpayer dollars on something that is already happening.

Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said Manchin’s assessment of the industry’s progress is accurate.

“We can get there if we … allow for the various carbon capture technologies to be developed, commercialized and then utilized within the coal and natural gas sectors,” Hamilton said. “Our goal is to reduce the carbon footprint as well, you know. It’s not like anyone’s opposing that.”

But climate activists sharply dispute Manchin’s characterization of the industry’s progress on reducing emissions.

Manchin’s claims are “demonstrably false,” said Michael O’Boyle, director of electricity policy at Energy Innovation, an energy and climate policy think tank in San Francisco.

“Over the last five years, from 2016 to 2020, the U.S. added about 1.1% to its clean energy share annually,” he said. “In 2020, alone, we hit a record of 2.3%, so barely more than half of a 4% increase.”

Manchin’s personal interests

Critics of the West Virginia senator also point out that Manchin has a considerable personal financial interest in the coal industry. He owns between $1 million and $5 million in shares of Enersystems Inc., a coal brokerage that he founded and that is now run by his son. The company has paid him nearly $5 million over the past decade.

When asked about this apparent conflict of interest, Manchin has for years protested that his assets are held in a blind trust. However, his Senate financial disclosure forms expressly name Enersystems.

Manchin also receives major campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry at large, taking in well over $250,000 in the 2022 election cycle so far.

A dying industry

Adding to the frustration of Manchin’s fellow Democrats is that the coal mining industry that he is so intent on protecting has been shriveling for decades, as demand for coal across the United States decreases.

In 2020, the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that the coal industry in West Virginia, including “all employees engaged in production, preparation, processing, development, maintenance, repair shop or yard work at mining operations, including office workers,” employed 11,418 people, or about 1.4% of the state’s workforce.

The numbers were down slightly in 2020 because of the pandemic and will likely rise when 2021 figures are released, but the longer-term trend is quite clear. Since the early 1950s, when more than 125,000 men mined coal with pickaxes and shovels in West Virginia, improved technology began steadily reducing the number of people needed to run the state’s coal mines.

By the 1990s, there were fewer than 40,000 people employed by the industry in the state, and the numbers have kept falling.

Add to that the decline in demand, as power companies switched to cleaner fuels, including natural gas, and the picture of a dying industry becomes complete. After peaking at 158 million tons in 2008, West Virginia’s coal production has fallen sharply, to well under 100 million tons for the past several years.

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