The United States will keep its policy of strategic ambiguity on whether American forces will defend Taiwan from Chinese attack over fears a shift in the doctrine would set off an invasion by Beijing, a Pentagon official told Congress on Tuesday.
Ely Ratner, assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said a war with China over Taiwan would produce “devastating” effects in terms of human life and economic dislocation.
The comments came during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on delays in providing arms and other defensive goods to Taiwan, delays that have resulted in a backlog of up to $19 billion in U.S. weapons to the island democracy as it faces increasing intimidation from China.
“The [foreign military sales] program that we’ve primarily relied on to provide military aid to Taiwan, is clearly broken,” Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, Alabama Republican, told a panel of top administration officials on Asia policy.
Mr. Ratner and Mira Resnick, State Department deputy assistant secretary for regional security, testified during the hearing that the U.S. defense industry is to blame for delays in getting U.S. weapons to Taiwan. Taipei is waiting for needed spare parts for older F-16 jets that are used to intercept growing aerial incursions by Chinese jets, the delivery of 66 new F-16s and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
Mira Resnick, deputy assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, testified that the Harpoons are years away from being supplied, and other arms are delayed because defense contractors, already stressed by the demands of the war in Ukraine, have been reluctant to produce arms rapidly.
Mr. Ratner was questioned by committee members about the longstanding but unofficial U.S. stance of “strategic ambiguity” regarding a Chinese attack on Taiwan and whether Washington should state clearly that a Chinese attack would bring a U.S. and allied military response. Mr. Ratner said altering the current policy would hurt Taiwan by increasing the risk of a Chinese invasion.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered People’s Liberation Army forces to have the capability to carry out a Taiwan invasion by 2027, adding urgency to U.S. arms sales to the island democracy that China claims as part of its sovereign territory.
In defiance of the strategic ambiguity approach, President Biden has said several times that the United States will intervene militarily if China invades Taiwan, only to have aides walk back the president’s words almost immediately.
U.S. policy toward Taiwan is based mainly on the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act that does not commit the U.S. to defending Taiwan from attack. But it states that any decision regarding such as defense would be made by the president in consultation with Congress.
Mr. Ratner said strategic ambiguity has helped deter China for decades, leaving Beijing military planners uncertain of what American forces will do in a clash. “We believe that sustaining that policy is critically important,” he said. “… Changing that policy could drive Beijing to initiate military action even when it was not ready to do so.”
China is expecting a U.S. military response to any invasion, is training its own forces for the intervention, and “they assume it’s going to happen,” he noted. “Therefore, we don’t think there would be additional deterrence value and changing our position away from strategic ambiguity.”
A policy shift also would upset the U.S. commitment to maintaining the status quo between China and Taiwan, he argued.
“So, we think there is a political cost that would be borne by the people on Taiwan for that kind of political action, and very little benefit in terms of deterrence,” Mr. Ratner said. “We believe today, deterrence is strong, and deterrence is real.”
Army Maj. Gen. J.P. McGee, vice director for strategy, plans and policy at the military’s Joint Staff, told lawmakers Tuesday that a Chinese military invasion across the Taiwan Strait would be difficult to carry out.
First, Chinese forces would have to cross the Taiwan Strait with distances of between 90 and 120 miles, he said, noting the D-Day invasion of Europe involved a crossing of 25 miles. China would need to muster hundreds of thousands of troops along the Chinese coast, providing an indication of a coming attack, he said.
Also, Chinese forces, inexperienced in combat operations, would then have to conduct a combined amphibious and air assault that would be “incredibly complicated,” the two-star general said.
Crossing the strait would leave Chinese forces vulnerable to attacks, and the invasion would be against a nation with a strong and credible military force. In addition, Taiwan has very few beaches and mountainous terrain that would make an invasion very difficult, he said.
“And a population that we believe would be willing to fight. So, there is absolutely nothing easy about a PLA invasion of Taiwan,” Gen. McGee said.
Gen. McGee said a Chinese blockade of Taiwan is among the least likely options for China in its attempts to take over the island.
Asked if China’s current economic problems might lead Mr. Xi to invade Taiwan, Mr. Ratner said that option is “unknowable” but that the Pentagon is closely watching the Chinese economy.
In addition to China’s economic woes, demographic stains, unemployment and political instability, the PLA also is having “issues” with its large-scale buildup of forces because of the economic problems, he said.
The Pentagon will continue to invest in bolstering U.S. and allied forces so that when “Xi Jinping wakes up every day and looks out the window and considers whether or not it’s within his cost-benefit analysis to initiate invasion against Taiwan, he says today’s not the day.”
“I think we think we’re pretty confident that’s true today, and we’re doing everything we can to keep it that way,” Mr. Ratner said.
Mr. Ratner outlined the Biden administration strategy for deterring China from attacking Taiwan through increased spending for weapons and bolstering regional alliances.
The PLA is focused on planning to carry out a rapid, low-cost invasion of Taiwan that Mr. Xi Jinping hopes could be done “at acceptable cost,” he said.
U.S. combat capabilities need to remain credible so that an invasion would be too costly for the Chinese leader, and “we think we are absolutely there today,” Mr. Ratner said.
Preparations for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan have included tabletop exercises that included plans by the Treasury and Commerce Departments to use financial and trade measures against China, Mr. Ratner said.
Ms. Resnick said Tuesday that the $19 billion Taiwan arms sale backlog is the result of “contracting, which can take a long time, or are waiting for industrial production.”
The department has launched an initiative called FMS 2023 that is seeking to speed up the arms sales process, she said. The program calls for easing export rules, emphasizing multi-year procurement and simplifying financing for often expensive U.S. weapons systems.