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International relations

Taiwan in danger from 2022 on, expert warns US Congress

Ex-national security adviser McMaster calls island the biggest 'flashpoint' with China

Then-U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster, center, at a White House news conference in 2018.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- U.S. senators overseeing the nation's military on Tuesday raised concerns over Washington's preparedness in the event of an invasion of Taiwan by mainland China as the scenario emerges as one of the largest flashpoints in the Asia-Pacific.

Answering questions from Senate Armed Services Committee members over a potential military conflict there, former national security adviser H.R. McMaster warned that the period of greatest danger for Taiwan is from 2022 onward, after the Beijing Winter Olympics and the Chinese Communist Party's twice-a-decade national congress.

"Taiwan is the next big prize" for China and is "the most significant flashpoint" that could lead to a large-scale war, said McMaster, now a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, in a hearing before the committee.

Chinese President Xi Jinping believes that "he has a fleeting window of opportunity that's closing, and he wants to in his view, make China whole again," said retired lieutenant general, who served as national security adviser in the Trump administration from 2017 to 2018, citing Beijing's crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

China says the U.S. should stop interfering in its internal affairs in these territories, a point reiterated just last week by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

A severe crisis between China and the U.S. over Taiwan rose to a top-tier conflict for the first time this year in the Council on Foreign Relations' annual Preventive Priorities Survey, published in January. It was the No. 2 danger to U.S. interests in the region, just after North Korea's development of nuclear weapons, according to the report, which was compiled after polling American foreign policy experts.

Questions over how the U.S. should approach Taiwan at Tuesday's hearing, titled "Global Security Challenges and Strategy," came from both sides of the aisle.

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton noted that a move on Taiwan by Beijing would have implications for the great power competition in advanced technologies. "If China were able to invade and annex Taiwan, it would also put in Chinese hands the world's leading producer of semiconductor chips as well," said Cotton.

Taiwan is the world's largest producer of semiconductors, accounting for 22% of global manufacturing capacity in a 2020 estimate from Boston Consulting Group.

Asked whether Washington should embrace so-called strategic clarity toward Taiwan to explicitly pledge to the island's defense should China invade it, in place of its longtime policy of strategic ambiguity, McMaster called the current policy "adequate, especially after we've made public the six assurances" to Taiwan.

Thomas Wright, a Brookings Institution foreign policy expert who also spoke at the hearing, shares this view.

"I wouldn't revisit" the concept of strategic ambiguity, Wright said, adding that it is through actions that the U.S. demonstrates its commitment to Taiwan and deters Beijing.

Both the Trump administration and the Biden administration have acted to assure Taiwan and send a clear message to China, McMaster said.

"There's a race ongoing right now to help Taiwan harden its defenses to make itself indigestible" before the period of "greatest danger" from 2022 onward, he said.

It is important to keep forward-position-capable joint forces in the region, McMaster said, "because what China's trying to do is to create in the South China Sea a barrier that would make it just far too costly for us to come to any ally's defense."

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