Concerns are growing in Washington over the possibility that China could try to invade Taiwan in the next few years.
Top U.S. military officers have warned in recent months that Beijing might try to make the explosive move this decade, and recent saber rattling, including a Chinese military amphibious landing exercise near the island, is further raising the alarm.
Still, the Pentagon’s top general cautioned Thursday that China would find an invasion of Taiwan to be “an extraordinarily complex and difficult operation.”
“If you're talking about a military invasion of Taiwan — crossing the straits, the Taiwan Straits, with a sizable military force to seize an island the size of Taiwan against the military that they have and with the population that they have — that's an extraordinarily complex and difficult operation, even if against an unopposed force,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“That's a very hard thing to do,” he added.
Under a decades-old policy toward Taiwan, the United States maintains “strategic ambiguity” — Washington does not explicitly say it would come to the island’s defense in a conflict with China.
The policy is designed to avoid provoking Beijing while also not emboldening Taiwan into formally declaring independence, a move that could lead to a Chinese invasion.
But U.S. ties with Taipei have deepened in recent years amid intensifying competition between the world’s two biggest economies. For example, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told House lawmakers this week that the Biden administration is pushing forward on trade talks with Taiwan.
A bipartisan group of senators, traveling in a U.S. military transport plane, also visited Taiwan during last week’s congressional recess to “underscore U.S. support” for the island, announce a donation of COVID-19 vaccines, and convey a message that “there is much we can do together to advance our shared prosperity, security and values,” according to a news release from Sen. Tammy Duckworth’s (D-Ill.) office.
The "bipartisan Senate delegation visit to Taiwan is yet another demonstration of that continued commitment to our friends and partners in this critical area of the world, as well as a reminder of how the United States’ presence over the past several decades has been instrumental in the development of security, prosperity and democracy throughout the Indo-Pacific region,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who joined Duckworth and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) in the delegation, said in a statement.
After the visit, the Chinese military announced it had conducted an amphibious landing exercise in waters near Taiwan. Amphibious landing would be an essential step for China to invade and seize an island such as Taiwan.
The exercise was the latest in a series of ramped-up Chinese military drills near Taiwan. Those drills have included flanking the island with warplanes and ships as well as a live-fire exercise in April after an unofficial U.S. delegation of former officials visited Taiwan.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry also lashed out at the senators’ visit, with spokesman Wang Wenbin saying the United States should “avoid sending any wrong signal to ‘Taiwan independence’ separatists and causing further damage to China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”
The latest tensions also come after a pair of top U.S. admirals warned that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is not as remote a possibility as some think.
Shortly before retiring, then-commander of Indo-Pacific Command Adm. Philip Davidson told senators in March that China could try to invade Taiwan “in the next six years.”
A few weeks later, Davidson’s successor, Adm. John Aquilino, didn’t specifically endorse the six-year timeline but told senators that “this problem is much closer to us than most think.”
“The rejuvenation of the Chinese Communist Party is at stake” when it comes to Taiwan, Aquilino said, calling annexing Taiwan China's “No. 1 priority.”
Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund, similarly told senators at a hearing this week that taking Taiwan is a “top priority" for China. But she added that “unification is a longer-term goal that Beijing prefers to achieve without bloodshed.”
“Taiwan remains the most dangerous potential flashpoint between the United States and China. China's priority is to deter Taiwan's independence,” she said. “It is employing a vast array of tools designed to undermine the confidence of the people of Taiwan in their government and weaken their will to resist integration with China.”
Amid the concerns about whether an invasion is possible, debate in Washington has also grown over whether the United States should abandon strategic ambiguity in favor of what’s being called “strategic clarity.”
Glaser told senators that while “the U.S. can and should take measures to bolster Taiwan's security and cross-strait deterrence,” she believes “abandoning the long-standing U.S. policy of ambiguity regarding whether the United States would come to Taiwan's defense could provoke rather than deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.”
Earlier this year, the Biden administration’s spy chief also warned that China would find a move away from strategic ambiguity “deeply destabilizing.”
“From our perspective, if we were to see a U.S. shift from strategic ambiguity, as you’ve identified it, to clarity over a willingness to intervene in a Taiwan contingency, the Chinese would find this deeply destabilizing,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.
“I think it would solidify Chinese perceptions that the U.S. is bent on constraining China's rise, including through military force, and would probably cause Beijing to aggressively undermine U.S. interests worldwide,” she added.
Amid the concerns about Taiwan as well as other issues that have prompted the Pentagon to label China the United States’s “pacing threat,” such as increasing aggression in the South China Sea and a naval buildup, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a directive this week aimed at sharpening the U.S. military focus on China.
The directive is classified, so it is unclear exactly what new initiatives are taking place or how much Taiwan is a factor, but Austin said in a statement that his order is intended to “improve the department’s ability to revitalize our network of allies and partners, bolster deterrence, and accelerate the development of new operational concepts, emerging capabilities, future force posture, and a modernized civilian and military workforce.”
China hawks in the United States seized on concerns about Taiwan, with several peppering Austin and Milley with questions on the issue at this week’s Senate hearing.
Asked by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) if China’s goal is to eventually take back Taiwan, Austin said he “would not disagree with the point” that Beijing has “a goal of eventually uniting Taiwan with China.”
“Nobody wants to see a unilateral change of the status quo with respect to Taiwan,” Austin added later in response to a question from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) about the possibility of a Chinese “fait accompli” against Taiwan.
“You've heard us say that we are committed to helping Taiwan defend itself in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Communiques and the Six Assurances,” Austin continued, referring to the law and agreements that define U.S. policy on Taiwan and China, including strategic ambiguity and the “One China” policy. “Our position hasn't changed in that regard.”