The American military is warning that China is probably accelerating its timetable for capturing control of Taiwan, the island democracy that has been the chief source of tension between Washington and Beijing for decades and is widely seen as the most likely trigger for a potentially catastrophic U.S.-China war.
The worry about Taiwan comes as China wields new strength from years of military buildup. It has become more aggressive with Taiwan and more assertive in sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. Beijing also has become more confrontational with Washington; senior Chinese officials traded sharp and unusually public barbs with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in talks in Alaska last month.
A military move against Taiwan, however, would be a test of U.S. support for the island that Beijing views as a breakaway province. For the Biden administration, it could present the choice of abandoning a friendly, democratic entity or risking what could become an all-out war over a cause that is not on the radar of most Americans. The United States has long pledged to help Taiwan defend itself, but it has deliberately left unclear how far it would go in response to a Chinese attack.
This accumulation of concerns meshes with the administration’s view that China is a frontline challenge for the United States and that more must be done soon — militarily, diplomatically and by other means — to deter Beijing as it seeks to supplant the United States as the predominant power in Asia. Some American military leaders see Taiwan as potentially the most immediate flashpoint.
“We have indications that the risks are actually going up,” Adm. Philip Davidson, the most senior U.S. military commander in the Asia-Pacific region, told a Senate panel last month, referring to a Chinese military move on Taiwan.
“The threat is manifest during this decade — in fact, in the next six years,” Davidson said.
Days later, Davidson’s expected successor, Adm. John Aquilino, declined to back up the six-year timeframe but told senators at his confirmation hearing: “My opinion is, this problem is much closer to us than most think.”
Biden administration officials have spoken less pointedly but stress the intention to deepen ties with Taiwan, eliciting warnings from Beijing against outsider interference in what it considers a domestic matter.
On Wednesday, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said the military threat against his country is increasing, and while he said it was not yet “particularly alarming,” the Chinese military in the last couple of years has been conducting what he called “real combat-type” exercises closer to the island.
“We are willing to defend ourselves, that’s without any question,” Wu told reporters. “We will fight a war if we need to fight a war, and if we need to defend ourselves to the very last day, then we will defend ourselves to the very last day.“
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin calls China the “pacing threat” for the United States, and the military services are adjusting accordingly. The Marine Corps, for example, is reshaping itself with China and Russia in mind after two decades of ground-focused combat against extremists in the Middle East.
Hardly an aspect of China’s military modernization has failed to rile the U.S. military. Adm. Charles Richard, who as head of U.S. Strategic Command is responsible for U.S. nuclear forces, wrote in a recent essay that…
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