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Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Biden backtracks on Taiwan

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The Biden administration is walking back comments after confusion over whether the U.S. government was changing its stance on Taiwan.

We'll share what was said earlier, what officials are saying now and China's response.

For The Hill, I'm Ellen Mitchell. Write to me with tips: emitchell@thehill.com.

Let's get to it.

No change on Taiwan policy, White House says 

The White House on Friday sought to clarify President Biden's comments related to ensuring Taiwan's defense in the face of a potential Chinese attack, saying U.S. policy toward the island is unchanged.

"The President was not announcing any change in our policy and there is no change in our policy," a White House spokesperson said in response to a request for comment from The Hill.

"The U.S. defense relationship with Taiwan is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act. We will uphold our commitment under the Act, we will continue to support Taiwan's self-defense, and we will continue to oppose any unilateral changes to the status quo," the spokesperson added.

Earlier comments cause stir: Biden on Thursday night answered in the affirmative when asked during a CNN town hall if the U.S. would come to Taiwan's defense if attacked by China.

"Yes, we have a commitment to do that," the president said.

The answer appeared to fly in the face of nearly four decades of U.S. policy toward Taiwan, in which America has adhered to "strategic ambiguity" when dealing with the island nation. Biden's comment follows a similar statement he made in August, when he appeared to equate U.S. policy toward Taiwan with security commitments it maintains with South Korea and Japan.

China's response: Chinese officials on Friday pushed back on Biden's remarks, accusing the U.S. of meddling in internal Chinese affairs.

"The Taiwan question is purely China's internal affairs that allow no foreign interference. ... No one should underestimate the resolve, the will and the ability of the Chinese people to defend their national sovereignty and territorial integrity," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a briefing with reporters.

From the Pentagon: Asked on Friday whether the U.S. government would defend Taiwan if attacked by Beijing, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin would not directly answer, only saying that Washington remains committed to its long held policy with China.

"Nobody wants to see cross-strait issues come to blows, certainly not President Biden, and there's no reason that it should," Austin said at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Friday. 

"As we've done over multiple administrations, we'll continue to help Taiwan with the sorts of capabilities that it needs to defend itself, and so we'll stay focused on those things. And I won't engage in any hypotheticals with respect to Taiwan."

FYI: The U.S. established its "one China" policy in 1979, recognizing Beijing as the sole, legal government of China but maintained unofficial relations with Taiwan and committed to ensuring its self-defense as part of efforts to promote a reconciliation between Beijing and Taipei and avoid a forceful takeover of the island, which runs under a democratic government.

Yet an increasingly aggressive and provocative China has raised the risk that an invasion of Taiwan is possible and raised questions of the usefulness of the U.S.'s policy of strategic ambiguity in favor of a more clear commitment to coming to Taiwan's aid in the face of an invasion.

Read the full story here.

A MESSAGE FROM RAYTHEON TECHNOLOGIES

 

Read how to deliver quick, seamless access to intelligence from any system in the battlefield, and how to adapt commercial data networks and clouds to military settings.

Top GOP want joint review of Afghan visa process  

The top GOP lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services, Foreign Relations and Homeland Security committees want four government watchdogs to conduct a joint inquiry into how the Biden administration handled the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

More wanted: The State Department inspector general earlier this week announced a series of reviews to look at the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, among other issues, but Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) are asking for a wider investigation.  

"While we appreciate the U.S. Department of State Office of Inspector General's commitment to carry out a review of the SIV program, we feel any audit must be comprehensive in scope and consider the role of other key agencies, notably the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense," the senators wrote in a letter sent Thursday to the inspector generals of the Pentagon, State Department, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Agency for International Development.

What would be included: "This investigation should thoroughly review each individual executive department that holds responsibilities in the SIV process, as well as their respective bureaus, offices, and missions, and the interagency processes in place to help facilitate communication and coordination between them," the letter reads.

Some background: The end of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan was thrown into chaos with the fall of the Western-backed government in Kabul to the Taliban on Aug. 15.

Both Democrats and Republicans have criticized the administration's handling of the chaotic U.S. exit from the country and demanded to know how 20 years of financial and physical investment failed to prepare Afghanistan's government and armed forces for a Taliban takeover after U.S. troops left.

More details, please: The lawmakers want agencies to work more closely together to give a detailed description of how many SIV applicants remain in the pipeline. They also want to know more about the SIV process, how long it takes and figures on applications received, approved and denied by year, to highlight those approved between April and August as the Biden administration struggled to process a backlog while the situation in Afghanistan quickly turned dire.  

They also asked for details on how the State Department and Department of Homeland Security adjusted the SIV process to expand capacity "and address longstanding bureaucratic hurdles" following the Trump administration's February 2020 deal with the Taliban to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan, as well as how viable the current SIV process is "in light of the recent Taliban takeover."

Read the full story here.

NEARLY 200 AMERICANS WANT TO LEAVE AFGHANISTAN

The Biden administration told Congress that more than 300 U.S. citizens are still in Afghanistan, 176 of whom want to leave.

In a Thursday briefing, the State Department told congressional staff that it is in touch with 363 American citizens, a call first reported by CNN.

More than previously known: The new numbers reveal more Americans want to get out of Afghanistan than the administration publicly estimated as U.S. forces were withdrawing from the country.

Earlier estimates: On Aug. 30, a day before the U.S. military ended its mission in the country, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said only "a small number of Americans, under 200 and likely closer to 100," remained in Afghanistan and wanted to leave. 

Days later on Sept. 5, White House chief of staff Ron Klain estimated that around 100 Americans were still waiting to be evacuated

How many have gotten out so far?: The U.S. government has helped about 234 Americans evacuate since the end of August, but it is not known exactly how many were in the country as U.S. troops left or how many remain.

Read more about that here.

A MESSAGE FROM RAYTHEON TECHNOLOGIES

 

Read how to deliver quick, seamless access to intelligence from any system in the battlefield, and how to adapt commercial data networks and clouds to military settings.

GOP worries over Pentagon vaccine mandate for contractors

Nearly a dozen GOP members of the House Armed Services Committee on Friday pressed the Biden administration over the Pentagon's looming COVID-19 vaccination deadline for defense contractors, arguing that the mandate should be reconsidered because it might compromise supply chains. 

"We strongly urge you to reconsider the manner in which you are seeking to address this issue so as not to harm the livelihood of civilian contractors, industry partners, and strategic goals of our armed services," the 11 lawmakers wrote to President Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

"Those who adamantly refuse the vaccine will accept termination. We will lose critical experience in skilled labor. We will lose opportunities for mentorship and on-the-job training from veteran craftsmen," they continued. "In the long-term, we will miss quality control standards. We will face endemic cost overruns and rework as decades of lessons are not passed to the next generation."

Who signed on: Lawmakers who signed the letter included committee ranking member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) as well as Republican Reps. Rob Wittman (Va.), Vicky Hartzler (Mo.), Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), Joe Wilson (S.C.), Blake Moore (Utah), Doug Lamborn (Colo.), Jack Bergman (Mich.), Scott Desjarlais (Tenn.), Bill Posey (Fla.) and Jerry Carl (Ala.).

The lawmakers do not specifically ask the Pentagon to pause its mandate, rather, they ask the department to consider the economic negatives of such a rule.

The deadline: Defense Department contractors need to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8 or risk being fired, as laid out under guidance the Biden administration released for federal contractors and subcontractors in September.

Read the full story here.

ON TAP FOR MONDAY

WHAT WE'RE READING

That's it for today. Check out The Hill's defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. See you Monday.

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