Pentagon strategists are preparing for a potential confrontation with China over the fate of Taiwan, senior administration officials told lawmakers.
“The PRC is the Department of Defense’s pacing challenge and a Taiwan contingency is the pacing scenario,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner, the lead Pentagon official for the Indo-Pacific, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a Wednesday hearing. “We are modernizing our capabilities, updating U.S. force posture, and developing new operational concepts accordingly.”
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Ratner’s comments underscore the possibility that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would bring People’s Liberation Army forces into conflict with the U.S. military, but he opined that an explicit pledge to intervene “would not meaningfully strengthen” American efforts to deter China from launching such an assault. Nevertheless, the hearing showcased bipartisan agreement that the conquest of the island by China would “significantly damage vital U.S. interests and alliances in the Indo-Pacific,” as a senior Republican put it.
“It would give China a platform in the First Island Chain to dominate the Western Pacific, and threaten, indeed, the U.S. homeland,” said Idaho Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the committee, while outlining the consequences of a Chinese conquest of Taiwan. “The consequences for Japan’s security, and therefore the U.S.-Japan alliance, are hard to overstate. Semiconductor supply chains would fall into China’s hands. And it would embolden China in other territorial disputes, including with India and in the South China Sea.”
Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping has adopted a more assertive posture with respect to territories on Beijing’s periphery. Chinese warplanes have conducted an unprecedented number of sorties around Taiwan, and Xi has overseen a major crackdown on Hong Kong while claiming sovereignty over vast swathes of the South China Sea, one of the most important waterways in the world.
“Unfortunately, although the PRC publicly advocates for peaceful unification with Taiwan, leaders in Beijing have never renounced the use of military aggression,” Ratner testified. “In fact, the PLA is likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the PRC by force, while simultaneously attempting to deter, delay, or deny third-party intervention on Taiwan’s behalf.”
Those policies have engendered anxiety in democratic capitals around the region and spurred an overhaul of Japanese defense policy, as U.S. and allied leaders who coordinated defense and diplomatic maneuvers might persuade China not to risk an attack.