US officials say China's actions towards Taiwan risk destabilising region

WASHINGTON – China’s actions towards Taiwan are destabilising and risk undermining peace and stability in the region, said two top US officials on Wednesday (Dec 8), adding that Beijing’s “bullying behaviour” has pushed more countries to step up their support of Taiwan.

Tension in the Taiwan Strait has crept up in recent weeks, with China sending aircraft into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone and conducting a combat readiness patrol as US lawmakers visited the island.

“We view the PRC’s growing military, diplomatic and economic coercion towards Taiwan with serious concern. These actions are destabilising to the region and risk a miscalculation that could harm the global economy,” said Mr Daniel Kritenbrink, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, using the country’s official name, the People’s Republic of China.

His colleague, Assistant Secretary of Defence for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner, said that China’s air and maritime campaigns around Taiwan were “intentionally provocative and increase the likelihood of miscalculation”.

Both officials were speaking at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the future of America’s policy on Taiwan.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province and has not ruled out unifying with it by force if necessary. The United States, which acknowledges Beijing but maintains informal ties with Taiwan, is bound by its Taiwan Relations Act to enable Taiwan to defend itself.

Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in his opening remarks called the Taiwan Strait “one of the most dangerous divides in the world today… where miscalculation could lead to a war with potentially catastrophic global consequences”.

Dr Ratner called bolstering Taiwan’s self-defences an “urgent task”, noting that the US has sold US$32 billion (S$43.6 billion) worth of arms to Taiwan since 2009.

The US Pentagon remains committed to maintaining the capacity of the US to resist the coercion, whether by force or otherwise, of Taiwan, said Dr Ratner, echoing the position stated in the Taiwan Relations Act.

“This is an absolute priority. The PRC is the Department of Defence’s pacing challenge, and a Taiwan contingency is the pacing scenario,” said Dr Ratner.

He added that the US was modernising its capabilities, updating its force posture and developing new operational concepts accordingly.

The US is also focused on boosting regional cooperation as a way of deterring China, said the officials.

They cited China’s ongoing trade spat with Lithuania as an example of Beijing working to diplomatically isolate Taiwan by punishing friendly countries.

Beijing unofficially halted trade with Lithuania over its move to allow Taiwan to open a de facto embassy there.

Several countries have become more vocal in supporting Taiwan as a result of China’s actions, said the two US officials.

Mr Kritenbrink said that lawmakers of several countries had visited Taiwan or passed measures of support, and many US allies and partners have also publicly raised their concerns about maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

“We are seeing countries stepping up their military presence in the region and their willingness to support deterrence in a way that we haven’t before,” said Dr Ratner, citing recent joint military exercises with Britain, Canada and Japan.

Under the US’ policy of strategic ambiguity, Washington has stayed vague about how it will respond if China invades the island, though some lawmakers have called for the policy to end.

Dr Ratner, who was asked if strategic ambiguity should change, replied that doing so would not meaningfully strengthen deterrence.

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