Since assuming office in January, the Biden Administration has signaled signs of support for Taiwan that have surprised some observers who expected a more dramatic shift in US-Taiwan policy relative to the Trump Administration (see “Sino-American War of Words Heats Up Over Taiwan” in our March 24 issue). Indications of general political support from the new administration aside, some of the most provocative commentary recently offered by US officials about US-Taiwan-China relations has come from senior US military officers speaking before the US Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). In March, retired US Army Lieutenant General and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, as well as the outgoing and incoming commanders of the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM)—Admiral Philip Davidson and Admiral John Aquilino, respectively—all presented testimony before SASC that included unusually strong statements regarding the increasing threat to Taiwan posed by the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Taken together, such statements signal an increasing willingness by senior US defense officials to go public with concerns about the military build-up conducted by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as well as the increasingly aggressive posture—both political and military—directed against Taiwan by the PRC.
US INDOPACOM Commanders Voice their Concerns Regarding China and Threats to Taiwan
In testimony presented to SASC on March 3, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (US Army, ret.) offered a written statement to SASC that described recent PRC actions—including “subversion of the WHO as it excluded Taiwan from that organization and stifled Taiwan’s instructive example of how to contain the [corona]virus,” and its “menac[ing] Taiwan with its aircraft and naval vessels”—as part of a larger pattern of aggression proceeding from the intrinsic nature of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). McMaster further expressed support for an increased presence of US naval and unmanned platforms in the Pacific, as well as continued arms sales and defense cooperation with Taiwan “to make it indigestible” in the event of a PRC attack.
The written testimony presented to SASC on March 9 by US Navy Admiral Philip Davidson—the current INDOPACOM commander—repeated standard US Government language regarding the “substantive relationship” between the United States and Taiwan “consistent with the One China Policy, based on the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), three US-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances” (thereby echoing earlier White House statements in a way that suggests an effort to project continuity in US policy).
The written statement further offered praise for the shared democratic values between the United States and Taiwan, while also expressing support for providing Taiwan with “defense articles and services in such quantity to allow Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities […] in a manner commensurate with the threat that Taiwan faces.”
Moving beyond such boilerplate text, the written statement was more interesting in its description of “PRC Threats in the Region,” which focused on military coercion directed against Taiwan:
The PRC has adopted an increasingly assertive military posture to exert pressure and expand its influence across the region. This is particularly stark concerning Taiwan. Over the past year, Beijing has pursued a coordinated campaign of diplomatic, informational, economic, and—increasingly—military tools to isolate Taipei from the international community and if necessary, compel unification with the PRC. Throughout 2020 the PLA has amplified its force posturing near and around Taiwan, to include using H-6 bombers to circumnavigate the island and conduct Taiwan Strait centerline crossings and flying military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) at the highest rate in nearly 25 years. Over the past two years, the PRC has incorporated highly-publicized amphibious assault training into national-level exercises, almost certainly to exert pressure and signal resolve. Beijing’s authoritative messaging has also grown increasingly confrontational and has linked the PLA’s military activities near the Taiwan Strait to “separatist” activities in Taiwan. […] Such consistent employment of pressure tactics undermines the [CCP’s] claims that it desires a peaceful unification with Taiwan.
Admiral Davidson’s verbal statements in response to senators’ questions were also noteworthy for the near-term timeframe they assigned to the PRC’s ambitions directed against Taiwan, stating that: “I think our concerns are manifest here during this decade, not only on the development […] [of] ships, aircraft, rockets, etc. that they’ve put in the field [but also] the way they’re advancing those capabilities […] Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions […] [and] I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.” Of note, at a March 16 press conference (see further details below) US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was asked by a reporter whether or not he agreed with Admiral Davidson’s expressed concern regarding an attack on Taiwan within six years. Austin gave a non-committal answer, saying only that he had stopped en route for a meeting with the INDOPACOM commander, and “had a great conversation.”
Subsequent testimony presented to SASC on March 23 by Admiral John Aquilino—the current commander of the US Pacific Fleet, who has been nominated to become the next INDOPACOM commander—echoed these concerns, and arguably went even further in raising the alarm about the potential for near-term PRC aggression. Admiral Aquilino stated that, in the region, “The most dangerous concern is that of military force against Taiwan. To combat that, […] forces [must be] positioned to be able to respond quickly, and not just our forces […] [but also those of] our allies and partners.” When asked about Admiral Davidson’s prediction of a potential threat within six years, Admiral Aquilino responded that “My opinion is that this problem is much closer to us than most think,” stressing that imposing unification on Taiwan is Beijing’s number one priority, with the legitimacy of the ruling CCP dependent on the outcome.
The comments by the outgoing and presumptive incoming INDOPACOM commanders come in the context of ongoing debate over budgeting for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a multi-year program intended to bolster US military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region. INDOPACOM is seeking USD $4.68 billion in additional funding for Fiscal Year (FY) 2022—as well as USD $22.69 billion for FY 2023-2027—with the primary focus identified as reinforcing the command’s deterrence posture vis-à-vis the PRC.
Concerns Expressed by Japanese Officials Regarding “Peace and Stability” in the Taiwan Strait
Concerns for the defense of Taiwan also reportedly featured in discussions held in mid-March between senior US and Japanese officials. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Japan from 15-17 March for discussions with Japanese officials, marking the first overseas trip by cabinet members of the new Biden Administration (and immediately preceding the contentious meeting of Secretary Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan with PRC State Councilor Yang Jiechi [楊潔篪] and Foreign Minister Wang Yi [王毅] in Anchorage, Alaska on March 19.)
In the first public meeting between these US cabinet officials and their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, Motegi made apparent oblique references to Taiwan and to the growth of PRC military power. Specifically, he stated that “The strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific […] [has seen] a change in the power balance as not only military strength but also economic development and high-tech advancements have exerted an influence on the power situation. The free and open international order is faced with major challenges, such as unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force and the expansion of authoritarianism.”
In a joint press conference held on March 16, Foreign Minister Motegi and Defense Minister Kishi made politically significant but measured comments in relation to Taiwan, offering general statements of concern that avoided either firm commitments or directly provocative statements towards the PRC. Motegi asserted the “importance of peace and stability of the Taiwan Straits,” while Kishi stated that “I am of the determination to protect Japanese territory by use of all means, and I also asserted [in our meetings] the importance of peace and stability over the Taiwan Straits.” Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Joanne Ou (歐江安) offered an expression of appreciation for these sentiments in a statement on March 17.
Subsequent press reporting indicated that meetings between Kishi and Austin had included discussions of the recent increase in PRC military aircraft conducting flights in the vicinity of Taiwan, as well as possible measures for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to assist US forces in the event of another Taiwan Strait crisis—including the possible deployment of JSDF platforms and personnel to protect US assets defending Taiwan. However, neither official statements nor press reporting indicated firm commitments on any such measures.
Since entering office, the new Biden Administration has communicated a measured but consistent message of support for Taiwan—one based both on a continuity of past US pledges, as well as regard for Taiwan as a fellow democracy. However, the testimony offered to the Senate in March by senior US military officers went much further, revealing the concerns held by the US national security establishment not only for the growth of Chinese military power, but also for the PRC’s increasingly aggressive posture towards Taiwan. It would be a mistake to cynically dismiss such concerns as representative of bureaucratic maneuvering in the pursuit of further resources. Indeed, the senior US military commanders in the Pacific—accompanied in more subtle, indirect terms by senior Japanese officials—have provided a stark warning about PRC ambitions and capabilities that we would be well advised to heed.
The main point: In March, senior US military officers—both active and retired—used the opportunity of public testimony before the Senate to raise warnings about the increasing PRC military threat to Taiwan. In more subdued and indirect language, Japanese cabinet officials also expressed their own concerns for “peace and stability” in the Taiwan Strait region.