Chinese Threat to Taiwan Closer 'Than Most Think': US Admiral

Chinese Threat to Taiwan Closer 'Than Most Think': US Admiral
Adm. John Aquilino speaks during a press briefing at the Pentagon in Washington on June 30, 2016. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Frank Fang
Taiwan is facing a more imminent threat from a possible Chinese invasion than most people realize, U.S. Adm. John Aquilino said during a hearing over his nomination to become commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) on March 23.
Aquilino, who if confirmed would succeed Adm. Philip Davidson as commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, was asked during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about Davidson’s recent comment that Beijing could invade Taiwan in the “next six years.”

In response, Aquilino, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, declined to endorse the estimate, saying that there were “many numbers out there” ranging from “today to 2045,” but warned of the imminent threat against the self-ruled island.

“My opinion is, this problem is much closer to us than most think,” Aquilino said. “We have to take this on, put those deterrence capabilities like PDI in place in the near term and with urgency.”

The Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), created under the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, the Pentagon’s annual spending bill, is aimed at securing advanced military capabilities to deter China’s military threats in the Indo-Pacific region. The PDI is akin to the European Deterrence Initiative (pdf), which was launched in 2014 to enhance U.S. military readiness in Europe.
INDOPACOM has proposed that Congress should provide the PDI with around $27 billion in additional spending from 2022 to 2027, including $4.6 billion for the fiscal year 2022. The money would be spent on new weapons such as a missile defense system on Guam and collaboration with allies in the region.

Aquilino said the Chinese regime has its eyes set on Taiwan, which Beijing claims is a part of its territory.

“They view it as their number one priority. The rejuvenation of the Chinese Communist Party is at stake,” Aquilino said.

Taiwan is a de facto independent country with its own democratically elected officials, military, constitution, and currency. Currently, Washington doesn't have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei but has maintained a robust relationship with the island under the Taiwan Relations Act, which authorizes the United States to supply Taiwan with military equipment for the island’s defense.

 Two navy soldiers raise Taiwan's national flag during an official ceremony at a shipyard in Su'ao, a township in Taiwan's Yilan County, on Dec. 15, 2020. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)
Two navy soldiers raise Taiwan's national flag during an official ceremony at a shipyard in Su'ao, a township in Taiwan's Yilan County, on Dec. 15, 2020. (Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

However, the United States has maintained a longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity”—meaning not clearly stating whether the U.S. government would come to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack.

Aquilino hinted that the U.S. military wouldn't stand idly by in such an event because that would “impact the credibility of the United States as a partner in the region.”

If the Chinese regime were to seize Taiwan, Aquilino said that would “negatively impact” the United States’ standing in the region and its ability “to operate freely in that area.”

Additionally, global trade would be impacted given Taiwan’s strategic location, according to Aquilino.

In terms of Taiwan’s self-defense, Aquilino applauded the island for investing in the Harpoon missile system.

“I'm encouraged by the capabilities that they're investing in, in an indigenous fashion for their defense. The example I would give you is the Harpoon system. I thought that was very thoughtful and the right capability for one example,” Aquilino said.

The Harpoon Coastal Defense System was part of a $2.37 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan approved by the Trump administration in October last year.
Taiwan’s Vice Defense Minister Chang Che-ping said in a press conference on Oct. 27, 2019, that the Harpoon missiles would allow the island’s military to destroy half of any Chinese invasion force, according to Taiwanese media.
The Harpoon missile sale was one of more than 10 arms sales to Taiwan approved by the Trump administration. In November last year, it approved the sale of a $600 billion package of advanced drones to the island.

Taiwan would be most vulnerable to a Chinese invasion in the spring. According to Aquilino, spring would be the best time of the year for the Chinese military to invade, considering light, weather, and sea conditions.

Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.