China’s military is actively preparing for a potential attack against Taiwan and the Pentagon is working closely with the island’s military to deter a direct assault and develop asymmetric weapons to fight off Beijing, senior Biden administration officials told Congress on Wednesday.
Ely Ratner, assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said Taiwan remains a “beacon of democracy” and is a vital outpost in a network of U.S. allies and partners in the western Pacific.
Amid growing military coercion toward Taiwan, China is preparing “to unify Taiwan with the PRC by force while simultaneously attempting to deter, delay or deny third-party intervention on Taiwan’s behalf,” Mr. Ratner told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The hearing was one of the first this year to explore the state of U.S. relations with Taiwan and was held at a time of increasing tensions between Washington and Beijing on a wide range of fronts.
“The PRC is the [Defense] Department’s pacing challenge, and a Taiwan contingency is the pacing scenario,” said Mr. Ratner, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China.
Asked specifically on the timing of a possible Chinese military move against Taiwan, Mr. Ratner said at one point: “Senator, my answer to that is the China challenge is a today problem, a tomorrow problem, a 2027 problem, a 2030 problem, a 2040 problem and beyond. I don’t think there is a date we ought to pick on the calendar.”
The U.S., he added, needs to “make sure we are sustaining deterrence from today and maintaining it going forward.”
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Mr. Ratner said the current Chinese military actions near Taiwan are “real and dangerous” and the arms buildup targeting the island is unlikely to end.
For now, however, the Pentagon believes China can be deterred from a direct assault through a combination of strengthened defenses, partnership with the United States and increased backing from like-minded democracies.
Still, recent signs have been worrisome. China’s rapid military buildup for a war on Taiwan includes sophisticated warships and submarines, advanced warplanes, increased numbers and quality of missiles, and cyberweapons.
“Without question, bolstering Taiwan’s self-defenses is an urgent task and an essential feature of deterrence,” Mr. Ratner said.
The China threat to Taiwan is not limited to an invasion or naval blockade, he added.
The People’s Liberation Army “is conducting a broader coercive campaign in the air and maritime domains around Taiwan,” Mr. Ratner said. “These operations are destabilizing, intentionally provocative, and increase the likelihood of miscalculation.”
Daniel J. Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told the Senate panel that the United States is expanding security cooperation and engagement with Taiwan as China seeks to undermine the fragile status quo across the 100-mile Taiwan Strait. Because Taiwan can never match China’s manpower and hardware advantage, the U.S. is pushing Taipei to develop strategies to make an invasion more difficult and costly.
The United States is “encouraging Taiwan to prioritize asymmetric capabilities that complicate PRC planning and to implement necessary defense reforms that will strengthen the resilience of Taiwan’s society against PRC coercion,” Mr. Kritenbrink said.
China’s military threats are bolstered by efforts to diminish Taiwan’s international ties through what Mr. Kritenbrink called “bullying” of countries that recognize or do business with the island democracy.
The threat from China is not limited to Taiwan, the administration officials said.
“We are deeply concerned about a range of destabilizing, aggressive and coercive action we have seen the People’s Republic of China carry out across the region and in some instances around the world,” Mr. Kritenbrink said. He noted stepped-up aggressiveness in regional seas, border disputes with India and “economic coercion” toward several countries.
Mr. Ratner and Mr. Kritenbrink did not explicitly say whether the United States would directly intervene in a conflict between China and Taiwan. They were observing a decades-old U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the Taiwan Strait standoff and Beijing’s sovereignty claims.
However, both officials’ comments on increased U.S. support, along with recent declarations by the governments of Japan and Australia to join a U.S. defense of Taiwan, were strong indications that American forces are prepared to back Taiwan in a mainland attack.
Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said China’s increasing threats shine a spotlight on the Taiwan Strait as “one of the most dangerous divides in the world today.”
The strait is among a handful of locations where a miscalculation could lead to war with potentially catastrophic consequences, he said.
Mr. Menendez singled out Chinese President Xi Jinping for fueling regional unease.
“Xi Jinping has orchestrated Beijing’s hypernationalist aggression for his own domestic ends as he imposes his authoritarian neo-Maoist vision on the Chinese people,” he said.
Mr. Ratner said the United States supports efforts by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to balance conventional military modernization with the asymmetric warfare tools.
Among the weapons the Pentagon wants Taiwan to build or purchase are coast defense cruise missiles, short- and medium-range air defenses, naval mines, and cutting-edge command, control and communications systems.
Other asymmetric weapons were not detailed, but they likely include missiles aimed at giving Taipei a military advantage.
An international agreement constrained Taiwan from building missiles with ranges over 300 miles.
It is building a land-attack cruise missile called the Hsiung Feng IIE with a range up to 1,200 miles — enough to strike targets inside China, including the major financial center of Shanghai.
In addition to weapons sales, the Pentagon is working more closely with the Taiwanese on doctrine and military reforms and better combat training.
“We think they are making real, tangible progress on this, and we’re going to do everything we can to support these efforts,” Mr. Ratner said. He added that the Pentagon is taking a proactive approach to back Taiwan.
In addition to deploying asymmetric weapons, the Taiwanese must invest in capabilities such as enhancing resilience against attacks, improving civilian-military integration and building a strategy that includes “defense-in-depth” — multiple layers of defenses.
Taiwan’s strategic location along a line of islands stretching from Japan through the South China Sea makes keeping the island a free and open democracy a policy imperative, U.S. officials say. Mr. Ratner called Taiwan “an anchor to a network of allies and partners in the region.”
Under questioning from Mr. Menendez, Mr. Kritenbrink said the State Department is considering a request from Taipei to upgrade its diplomatic status from the unofficial Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office to the Taiwan Representative Office.
The Biden administration is also reviewing a request from Taiwan for transfers of surplus U.S. military equipment, according to testimony during the hearing.
A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not respond to an email request for comment.