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Top US Admiral: Invading Taiwan is China’s ‘No. 1 priority; closer than most think’

U.S. Navy Adm. John Aquilino testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 23, 2021. (SASC video screenshot)
March 25, 2021

During a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Navy Adm. John Aquilino said invading Taiwan is China’s top priority and could happen sooner than many may realize.

During the hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) asked Aquilino, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the nominee to be the next leader of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), why China would want to invade Taiwan and how it could affect U.S. military dynamics in the region.

Referring to the likelihood a Chinese attempt to invade and annex Taiwan, Aquilino said, “They view it as their number one priority.”

From a political standpoint, Aquilino said, “The rejuvenation of the Chinese Communist Party is at stake.”

Cotton asked Aquilino about comments made two weeks prior by the current INDOPACOM commander, Adm. Philip Davidson, who said a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could happen within the next six years. Aquilino did not specifically back Davidson’s estimated timeline, but said “there’s many numbers out there” ranging anywhere in time from “today to 2045.”

“My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think,” Aquilino added. “We have to take this on, put those deterrence capabilities, like [the Pacific Deterrence Initiative] in place in the near term and with urgency.”

The Pacific Deterrence Initiative, or PDI, is a Navy proposal for expanding military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region to deter Chinese aggression. According to an executive summary of the Navy proposal, obtained by Breaking Defense, PDI would entail $20 billion in spending to improve U.S. missile defenses throughout the region while also improving U.S. long-range strike capabilities of its own, such as cruise missiles. PDI also calls for more expeditionary forces and forces that can operate in near-shore littoral zones.

He said Taiwan’s strategic position puts it in close proximity to two-thirds of the world’s trade, making a potential Chinese invasion and annexation of the island nation a “critical concern.” If China were to control Taiwan and base military aircraft and warships on the island, Aquilino said it “certainly would extend their reach” and allow China to expand further into other contested regions and threaten U.S. allies and partners, such as the Philippines.

While Taiwan governs itself as an independent nation, China has asserted claims of sovereignty over the island and the U.S. has recognized China’s sovereignty claims through the One-China policy. Still, the U.S. has met with Taiwanese officials and sold military equipment to Taiwan, in moves that could be seen as lending legitimacy to Taiwan’s sovereignty claims.

Aquilino said U.S. relationships with its allies in the Indo-Pacific region would also be at stake if China were to seize control over Taiwan.

He also said Chinese control of Taiwan would put U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) — frequently conducted to assert U.S. navigation rights in international waters — would be able to continue but “it certainly would be at greater risk.”

Cotton concluded his line of questioning by noting Russia annexed Crimea on Feb. 27, 2014, just four days after the Sochi Winter Olympcis. He noted the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are also set to run until Feb. 23 next year. Cotton is among a growing number of lawmakers who have called for the U.S. to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics.