WASHINGTON (AP) – US military warns China is likely to accelerate its timetable for conquering control of Taiwan, the democracy that has been the main source of tension between Washington and Beijing for decades and is widely seen as the most likely trigger for a potentially catastrophic war between the United States and China.
The concern for Taiwan comes as China leverages new strength from years of military build-up. It has become more aggressive towards Taiwan and more assertive in sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. Beijing has also become more confrontational with Washington; leading Chinese officials traded sharp and unusual public barbs with Foreign Minister Antony Blinken in talks in Alaska last month.
However, a military move against Taiwan would be a test of US support for the island, which Beijing considers a secession province. For the Biden administration, it could present the choice between abandoning a friendly, democratic entity or risking what could become an all-out war over a case that is not on the radar of most Americans. The United States has long committed to helping Taiwan defend itself, but it has deliberately left unclear how far it would go in response to a Chinese attack.
This accumulation of concerns is in line with the administration̵
“We have indications that the risk is actually rising,” CEO Philip Davidson, the top US military commander in the Asia-Pacific region, told a Senate panel last month, citing a Chinese military move in Taiwan.
“The threat is obvious during this decade – in fact, for the next six years,” Davidson said.
Days later, Davidson’s expected successor, John Aquilino, refused to back the six-year time frame, but told senators during his confirmation hearing: “My opinion is that this issue is much closer to us than most people think.”
Biden administration officials have spoken less clearly, but stressed the intention to deepen ties with Taiwan and evoked warnings from Beijing against outside interference in what it considers domestic affairs.
On Wednesday, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the military threat to his country was increasing, and while he said it was not yet “particularly alarming”, the Chinese military has in the last few years carried out what he called “real fighting – type ”exercises closer to the island.
“We are willing to defend ourselves, it is without question,” Wu told reporters. “We will fight a war if we need to fight a war, and if we need to defend ourselves until the last day, then we will defend ourselves until the very last day.”
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin China calls that “threat to the pace” of the United States, and military services are adapting accordingly. The Marine Corps, for example, is reshaping itself with China and Russia in mind after two decades of ground-focused struggle against extremists in the Middle East.
Hardly an aspect of China’s military modernization has failed to ripple the U.S. military. Adm. Charles Richard, who as head of the US Strategic Command is responsible for US nuclear forces, wrote in a recent essay that China is on its way to being a “strategic peer” in the US. He said China’s nuclear weapons stockpile is expected to double “if not triple or quadruple” in the next 10 years, though it goes beyond the Pentagon’s official view that stockpiles “at least double” during that period.
However, Taiwan is seen as the most pressing issue.
U.S. officials have noted the actions of the People’s Liberation Army, which appear to rattle Taiwan. For example, Chinese air strikes, including flying around the island, are an almost daily event that serves to promote the threat, run-down Taiwanese pilots and planes, and learn more about Taiwan’s capabilities.
Chinese officials have ridiculed Davidson’s Taiwan comments. A Defense Department spokesman, Colonel Ren Guoqiang, called on Washington to “abandon zero-peace thinking” and do more to build mutual trust and stability. He said that “attempts by external forces to use Taiwan to try to restrict the use of military means by China or Taiwan’s independence forces to achieve independence are all dead ends.”
The implications of a Chinese military move against Taiwan and its 23 million people are so deep and potentially serious that Beijing and Washington have long managed a fragile middle ground – Taiwanese political autonomy that excludes control from Beijing but stops short of formal independence.
Predictions as to when China might decide to try to force Taiwan to reunite with the mainland have long varied, and there is no uniform view in the United States. Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said last week that he doubts Chinese leaders are ready to force the issue.
“I do not think it will come soon,” he said.
The Trump administration took a number of steps to demonstrate a stronger commitment to Taiwan, including sending a cabinet member to Taipei last year, making him the top U.S. official to visit the island since formal diplomatic ties were severed in 1979 in respect for China. The Biden administration says it wants to cooperate with China where possible, but has expressed its objections to a wide range of Chinese actions.
Last week, the US Ambassador to the Pacific Island of Palau, John Hennessey-Niland, became the first U.S. Ambassador to visit Taiwan. since Washington created ties to Taipei in favor of Beijing.
China is a frequent target of criticism in Congress. Concerns about countering its growing military power are reflected in the passage of the $ 2.2 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative in 2021. Davidson wants it to support, among other things, initiatives to establish a better air defense system to protect US territory Guam against Chinese missiles. and maintain U.S. military dominance in the region.
Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat in Washington and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is skeptical of the military’s determination of dominance.
“Given the way the world works now, it is only hopelessly unrealistic to have a country dominant,” he said in a recent online forum sponsored by Meridian, a non-partisan diplomatic center. He said the US military, in partnership with allies, could maintain sufficient strength to send the message: “China, do not invade Taiwan because the price you want to pay for is not worth it.”
Associated Press author Ken Moritsugu in Beijing, AP author Huizhong Wu in Taipei, Taiwan and AP diplomat author Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.