Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum last week, CIA Director William Burns observed that Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine “probably affects less the question of whether the Chinese leadership might choose some years down the road to use force to control Taiwan, but how and when they would do it.”
The chief of the CIA — the agency whose mission is to recruit spies, steal secrets and produce all source analysis on the wickedly challenging worldwide threats to our national security — was delivering a stark warning.
But the intelligence community does not make policy decisions. That’s a job for President Biden and his foreign policy team.
Alarm bells should be ringing in the White House because it is becoming clearer by the day that Taiwan is sitting on the epicenter of the geopolitical fault line between democracy and dictatorship.
China is militarizing the South China Sea, aggressively expanding its nuclear arsenal, and developing sophisticated cyber warfare and space capabilities. Beijing is also mounting full-throttled espionage operations against the U.S. and our allies. China counterfeits U.S. products and steals trade secrets by requiring U.S. companies to share technology in return for market access. Chinese theft of intellectual property costs the U.S. economy billions of dollars annually.
Listen to FBI Director Christopher Wray: “From a counterintelligence perspective, China represents the broadest and most challenging threat we face as a country.”
Admiral John Aquilino, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, has emphasized that China now boasts the world’s second largest defense budget after the U.S. and is rapidly modernizing its military force with weapons systems that include the J-20 stealth fighter, hypersonic missiles and two aircraft carriers, with a third under construction.
Communist China has long claimed Taiwan is a “breakaway province” to be reunited by force if necessary — despite having never ruled it. The People’s Liberation Army routinely deploys its warplanes across the Taiwan Strait into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, which is fewer than 125 miles from China’s southeastern coast. China menacingly conducts combat readiness drills near Taiwan and as a matter of policy, seeks to isolate Taiwan diplomatically.
Annexing Taiwan would extend the PRC’s reach into the East China Sea and significantly increase the threat to Japan and Guam. Equally worrisome, China would subsume Taiwan’s vibrant economy and high-tech industry, including its world-class semiconductor factories, on which the U.S. and its allies rely to power everything from smartphones to cars.
U.S. credibility in the region and beyond would take a disastrous hit.
Deterring a Chinese attack on Taiwan is clearly in the U.S. national interest.
While China has significant maritime and air superiority, Taiwan is highly defensible, especially with a commitment to small-unit tactics such as the ones Ukraine has successfully deployed against Russia, along with asymmetric defensive tactics that include mines, U.S.-made Javelin and Stinger missiles and sophisticated coastal missile defense systems.
Gathering intelligence on China’s plans, including for destructive cyber attacks, would also be critical. China would seek to deny Taiwan any warning before launching what would be one of the largest amphibious assaults in history.
The goal for Washington, Taipei, and our allies in the region is to make Taiwan a hard target, one too costly in spilled blood and lost treasure for China to invade. Again the Ukraine example is instructive: The West’s failure to deter the Kremlin resulted in the most destructive land war in Europe since World War II.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, the late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on the Biden administration to abandon the U.S. government’s long-held “strategic ambiguity” position regarding defense policy regarding Taiwan. On three occasions, most recently at a press conference during his May 2022 visit to Japan, Mr. Biden flatly answered the U.S. would respond militarily to defend Taiwan if China attacked.
Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. pledges only to sell Taiwan only defensive weapons. There is no binding agreement to defend Taiwan even if Mr. Biden said “that was the commitment we made.” Each time the president said it, his own administration aides walked back his words and denied Mr. Biden was changing official policy.
The Biden administration would do well to consider Mr. Abe’s extraordinary legacy, his warnings about the growing threat of China’s aggression, and the necessity of reexamining the policy of “strategic ambiguity,” which may actually increase the likelihood of war because of its inherent uncertainty and potential for miscalculations on all sides.
Building on the high level of bipartisan consensus to deter China, Mr. Biden should enhance collaboration with regional allies such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and India. And U.S. intelligence agencies, the State Department and the Pentagon should assess whether a commitment to defend Taiwan’s territorial integrity — replacing “strategic ambiguity” with “strategic certainty” — might in fact be the surest way to deter China.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.