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Indo-Pacific

US should rethink Taiwan 'strategic ambiguity': Indo-Pacific chief

Southeast and South Asia will be priority for posture review, Adm. Davidson says

The destroyer USS Russell transits the Taiwan Strait in June. For years, Washington has held a position in which Taipei could not be sure the U.S. would come to its defense, but Beijing could not be sure the U.S. would not, if China mounted an attack on the island. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy) 

NEW YORK -- When China gets out of bed each morning and peels back the curtain, it will see the U.S. and its allies united in the Western Pacific, assuring its own access, and conclude "we don't want to mess with that capability, that capacity and what I know to be the will."

Then it "closes the curtain and doesn't go to fight. You know, that's what we're trying to achieve."

So said Adm. Philip Davidson, the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, as he testified at a Senate hearing on the command's budget proposal Tuesday.

He called the Indo-Pacific the most consequential region for America's future, and said it remains the United States' priority theater where China is the greatest long-term strategic threat to security.

"I cannot for the life of me understand some of the capabilities that they're putting in the field, unless ... it is an aggressive posture, " he said. "And frankly, I think they have told us that with their ambition to supplant the rules-based international order and replace it with one with Chinese characteristics, which they said they intend to do by midcentury."

Davidson, who is retiring, was not shy in suggesting that America's decadeslong position of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan should be reassessed.

Adm. Philip Davidson testifies at the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9. 

Washington has held a position in which Taipei could not be sure the U.S. would come to its defense, but Beijing could not be sure the U.S. would not, if China mounted an attack on the island.

When asked by Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican from Florida, whether it was time for the U.S. to "state clearly that we are not going to allow communist China to invade and subdue Taiwan," Davidson did not shoot it down.

"I wake up every day, you know, trying to assess the dynamic nature of the geostrategic environment, and you know, frankly we ought to be thinking about these things every day," Davidson said.

"More than 40 years of the strategic ambiguity ... has helped keep Taiwan and its current status, but you know these things should be reconsidered routinely," he said, adding, "I would look forward to the conversation."

On China, Davidson also said it was imperative to bolster the defense of Guam, a vital U.S. military outpost in the Pacific Ocean.

"Guam is a target today. It needs to be defended," the four-star admiral said, noting that China's air force has put out a propaganda video showing a bomber force attacking what looks to be Anderson Air Force Base in Guam.

In its Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a summary of the combatant command's investment priorities, the Indo-Pacific Command is requesting funding to install an Aegis Ashore in Guam to have a "fixed and persistent 360-degree air missile defense from the second island chain."

The second island chain refers to an area of the Western Pacific that runs from southeastern Japan out to Guam and south to Indonesia.

"The structure that's out there right now, the THAAD radar is not capable of meeting the current trajectory of threats from China," Davidson said, referring to Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.

Meanwhile on the global force posture review that President Joe Biden has ordered Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to undertake, Davidson said the idea is to have a "more dispersed design and posture in the region" through a combination of permanently based forward-deployed forces in Japan, South Korea and Guam, plus a rotation of forces based in the contiguous U.S., Alaska and Hawaii.

When asked by Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, if the current level of permanent presence west of the international date line was sufficient, Davidson said it was, but if the opportunity arose, the U.S. would look at Southeast Asia and South Asia as priorities.

"Because so much dialogue would have to happen with allies and partners in the region ... I'm pretty satisfied with a permanent stationing of forces in the region right now," Davidson said.

"If situation were to avail us, I think more capabilities in Southeast Asia and South Asia would be a priority. But in the meantime, what is achievable is to help with dispersal locations, and with the accommodation of rotational forces within U.S. territories, and the freely associated states in the region, principally, as well as our key allies in the region."

Davidson also said that Japan was indispensable in the Indo-Pacific strategy.

"It takes almost three weeks to respond from the West Coast of the United States and 17 days to respond from Alaska to get all the way to the first island chain and to conduct operations within the second island chain," he said. The first island chain refers to a group of islands that includes Taiwan, Okinawa and the Philippines.

"But clearly, Japan brings amphibious capability. They have combatant capability, fighter aircraft, maritime patrol aircraft. To me, the Japanese are the number one ally in the region, and they're critically important to the security of the region as well," Davidson said.

On emerging partnerships, he said that India's active participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the U.S., Japan and Australia, was an opportunity that Washington should seize.

"The potential of deepening relationships, strategic defense partnership with a country like India or in a multilateral formation, like the Quad -- India, United States, Japan and Australia -- I think is a key strategic opportunity for the United States and those three other countries."

"India has long had an approach called strategic autonomy ... a nonaligned approach with others, but I think certainly the activities along the Line of Actual Control with China has opened their eyes to what cooperative effort with others might mean for their own defensive needs," Davidson said, referring to clashes that erupted in June between Indian and Chinese soldiers. 

While India may remain committed to their nonaligned approach for the immediate future, Davidson said he thinks the country will deepen their engagement with the Quad. "I think that's a key strategic opportunity for us, Australia, and Japan," he said.

Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, replied: "That would be a geopolitical major development if India more closely aligned with those other countries."

The Quad leaders will hold their first-ever meeting virtually on Friday.

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