China’s ability to invade Taiwan ‘much closer than most think’, US Indo-Pacific Command nominee says

Robert Delaney
·4-min read

Beijing will have the ability to invade Taiwan sooner than current predictions would suggest, US President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead America’s Indo-Pacific Command said on Tuesday.

Speaking in a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral John Aquilino said that the point at which China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be equipped for such a mission was “much closer than most think”, dismissing varying predicted timelines that extend out to 2045.

“We have to take this on, put those deterrence capabilities like [the Pacific Deterrence Initiative] in place in the near term and with urgency,” Aquilino said, referring to a mandate written into the 2021 National Defence Authorisation Act to fulfil the national defence strategy and maintain a military edge over China.

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The nominee for America’s top Pacific naval commander was responding to a question from Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton about what the current head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, said about the issue earlier this month.

Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, at the Lowy Institute in Sydney in February 2020. Photo: AP
Admiral Philip Davidson, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, at the Lowy Institute in Sydney in February 2020. Photo: AP

“I worry that they’re accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order,” Davidson told the same Senate committee on March 9. “They’ve said that they want to do that by 2050. I’m worried about them moving that target closer. Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact in the next six years.”

Cotton also reiterated a concern expressed this month by H.R. McMaster, the retired three-star Army general who served as national security adviser to former president Donald Trump, that the months after the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in 2022 should be seen as a period of “greatest danger” in terms of China’s willingness to resort to military force in the region. The senator pointed to Russia’s annexation of Crimea just days after the country hosted the Winter Olympic Games in 2014.

Aquilino was more aligned with Davidson when he said in questioning by Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren that he agreed with the incumbent commander that an erosion of “conventional deterrence” against China in the Indo-Pacific region was the greatest military threat that America faces.

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Warren also asked Aquilino whether the US would still be ahead of China in terms of nuclear weapons capability even if Beijing quadrupled its stock of nuclear arms.

Biden’s nominee said yes, adding that: “Conventional deterrence to avoid crisis or conflict is certainly the main effort as I would see it, if confirmed.”

Other questions about China included the significance of military installations that Beijing has been constructing in the South China Sea since 2015 and a bloody clash last June in Galwan valley that killed at least 20 Indian soldiers.

“The goals are to supplant US security leadership in the region, overall, whether they be in the South China Sea, or on the northern border of India, and generate a change to the international rules beyond what the nations all agreed to under the 1982 UNCLOS treaty, and ultimately to change those rules to the benefit of the PRC [People’s Republic of China],” Aquilino said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Beijing’s objectives “would change the view of the region from those who believe in a free and open Indo-Pacific to those that might want a more authoritarian, might equals right, closed Indo-Pacific,” he said.

The US has not signed the UNCLOS treaty, which defines the scope of a nation’s territorial waters and “exclusive economic zones” adjacent to their coastlines, while China has.

Aquilino said in Tuesday’s hearing that he would advocate for Washington to become a signatory to the treaty.

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