- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2019

The Navy’s top officer says the Pentagon is for the first time considering the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier through the contentious Taiwan Strait amid increased threats from China that it may use military action to absorb Taiwan.

While Beijing is likely to view such a deployment as a major provocation by Washington, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said this week he that sees no limitations within international law to prevent U.S. forces from taking the step.

“We don’t really see any kind of limitation on whatever type of ship could pass through those waters,” the four-star admiral told reporters in Tokyo, after wrapping up a diplomatic visit to China.

The Taiwan Strait is the body of water running directly between mainland China and Taiwan, whose U.S.-aligned government rejects Beijing’s claim that the island is part of China.

According to a report by Reuters, Adm. Richardson said U.S. military officials see the strait as part of international waters. Smaller U.S. warships have routinely transited the waterway in recent years, but Navy leaders have never approved deployment of an aircraft carrier or associated strike group to move through the strait.

Analysts warn the move could ratchet up already heated regional tension between the U.S. and Chinese navies in the wider South China Sea.

At the same time, recent comments by Chinese President Xi Jinping have increased concerns in Washington over the prospect of Chinese military action against Taiwan.

In early January, Mr. Xi stated outright that Beijing’s goal is to absorb Taiwan and that China could use “force” to achieve the goal if necessary.

His comments came a day after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen vowed the democracy-oriented island will forever resist the sort of reunification being pushed by Beijing.

With that as a backdrop, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency assessment this week claimed China’s expanding military capabilities pose the greatest threat to Taiwan and other U.S. allies in the Pacific.

On releasing the assessment Tuesday, a senior defense intelligence official told reporters on background of Pentagon concerns that “we’ll reach a point where internally, within their decision-making, [China] will decide that using military force for a regional conflict is something that is more imminent.”

When asked about the prospect of a Chinese military offensive to absorb Taiwan, the official replied: “Specifically, that would be the most concerning to me.”

China already possesses medium and intermediate-range missile technology that has achieved near parity with American-made systems, the official said, adding that it would be those types of missiles that would likely be the first salvo in any Chinese effort to retake Taiwan.

“If they wanted to fire missiles at Taiwan, they could do it right now,” the official said, noting “there’s been no indication they’re planning to do that, but there’s very little warning that could be provided for that kind of thing.”

But the official also maintained that after any initial missile strike, it would be highly unlikely that Chinese forces could mount the necessary ground invasion to overtake Taiwan.

“There’s a lot of work that I think that they’re still doing to try to work on those [invasion] capabilities,” the official said. “We don’t have a real strong grasp on when they will think that they are confident in that capability.”

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