A top US commander has warned that China could invade Taiwan within the next six years as Beijing accelerates its efforts to supplant American military strength in Asia.
Taiwan, which is democratic and self-ruled, is constantly threatened by China as Chinese officials see the island as a part of their territories and have vowed to reclaim it one day.
"I worry that they're [China] accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order... by 2050," Washington's top military officer in Asia-Pacific, Admiral Philip Davidson told The Guardian on Tuesday.
"Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years," he told a US Senate armed services committee hearing.
Davidson said the expansion of China's military assets in the region risked creating an "unfavourable" situation for the US, reducing the level of deterrence.
"We are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response," he said.
"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."
Taiwan broke away from mainland China in 1949 after a civil war. The Chinese Communist Party, which is currently in power in Beijing, has never controlled Taiwan. However, they view Taiwan as a part of China that it can regain by force if possible.
Cross-strait tensions have been high after Beijing cut off formal ties with Taiwan when Tsai Ing-wen was elected as its new leader in 2016. Taiwan's government and a rising majority of its citizens oppose the notion that it is a part of China.
Tensions were further heightened by increased US arms sales and diplomatic visits to Taiwan during the latter stages of Donald Trump's presidency as he feuded with China on issues like trade and national security. In response, China repeatedly threatened "countermeasures", and ratcheted up its military activity in and near the Taiwan Strait.
Analysts disagree on the likelihood of war, recalling that Beijing is still isolating Taiwan by trade and diplomatic means. China's "grey zone" tactics, such as dredging the sea around contested islands, are also causing controversy because they don't yet cross the line into a confrontation.
"Though I'm not convinced that Beijing has depleted all the options in its toolkit short of a full-out invasion, my concern is that, with the increasing regularity of incursions into Taiwan's [air space], there is a higher risk of an accident or a miscalculation – one that could compel, or be used by the Chinese leadership to justify, further military escalation," said Jessica Drun, a non-resident fellow at Project 2049, a thinktank focusing on security in the Asia region.
Taiwan's diplomatic recognition was transferred to China in 1979, but Washington remains the island's most powerful unofficial ally and military backer. For decades, the United States has pursued a military ambiguity deterrent strategy, refusing to reveal if it will provide military assistance to Taiwan in the event of an attack. In his testimony to the Senate, Davidson proposed that this be reassessed.
Although the Biden administration has not stated that it will end the policy, it has given Taiwan reason to be optimistic about continued funding. In January, the State Department stated that the United States' dedication to Taiwan was "rock-solid," and Taiwan's de facto ambassador to the United States was officially invited to Biden's inauguration, a first since 1979.
China also has made expansive territorial claims in the resource-rich South China Sea and even threatens the American island of Guam, Davidson said.
"Guam is a target today," he warned, recalling that the Chinese military released a video simulating an attack on an island base strongly resembling US facilities in Diego Garcia and Guam.
He called on lawmakers to approve the installation on Guam of an Aegis Ashore anti-missile battery, capable of intercepting the most powerful Chinese missiles in flight.
Guam "needs to be defended and it needs to be prepared for the threats that will come in the future," Davidson said.
In addition to other Aegis missile defence systems destined for Australia and Japan, Davidson called on lawmakers to budget for more long-range weaponry "to let China know that the costs of what they seek to do are too high."
"A wider base of long-range precision fires, which are enabled by all our terrestrial forces – not just sea and air but by land forces as well – is critically important to stabilise what is becoming a more unstable environment in the western Pacific," Davidson said.
While the Pentagon has said it was in favour of placing such missiles in the region, allies in Asia have so far appeared to be opposed to the idea of hosting them.
Davidson said, however, that missile defence was not enough to deter a potential adversary. "Missile defence is the hardest thing to do. And if I'm the manager of a baseball team, if I can have the best defences in the world but if I can't score some runs, I can't win the game," Davidson said.