The East China Sea represents the one area along the East Asian littoral where a shooting war between China and the US is conceivable, retired US admiral Michael McDevitt said on Thursday.
A former director of the Pentagon’s East Asia Policy office, McDevitt said that Taiwan is a “perennial flashpoint” and the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台), known as the Senkakus in Japan, had now become a second flashpoint.
“If China elects to use force against Japan over those islands, there is a very real possibility that the US could become directly involved,” he told the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
At the hearing on “China’s Maritime Disputes in the East and South China Seas,” McDevitt said that “fortunately” cross-strait relations are “probably as good today as they have ever been and as a result the risk of conflict is very low.”
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that “from a sovereignty and military perspective, Taiwan is China’s biggest and most important maritime dispute,” he said.
Despite protestations of neutrality regarding sovereignty issues in the South China Sea, the US has “willingly become more deeply involved than ever before,” he said.
The US considers rule-based stability in the South China Sea to be an important national objective and as a result it has become an implicit test case of “post-rebalance” US credibility as a stabilizing power in Asia.
“The United States now has strategic skin in the game,” McDevitt said.
Asked what role, if any, Taiwan now plays in China’s maritime disputes, the retired admiral said that the Diaoyutais dispute was of “great personal interest” to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
“I can attest to his continued personal involvement to this day,” McDevitt said. “As a member of a delegation visiting Taipei I was able to ask him about the issue and received an impromptu explanation, in great detail, of all the issues involved.”
McDevitt said Taiwan constitutes China’s biggest and most important maritime dispute.
“On many different levels — political, economic, trade, academic and personal relationships — the Sino-US relationship is normal,” he said. “Sometimes it is difficult and sometimes it is cordial, but overall, mutually productive and central to the peaceful development of Asia and the economic health of the world.”
However, the “black cloud of war” hovers in the background of the relationship because of Taiwan, McDevitt said.
“As long as Beijing insists on keeping the use of force against Taiwan as one of the central tenants of its declaratory policy toward Taiwan — keeping its finger on the trigger so to speak — the possibility of conflict cannot be ruled out,” he said.
As a result, Taiwan has a decisive influence on the security relationship between Beijing and Washington, he said.
“Both defense establishments are actively planning, exercising and war gaming in order to determine how best to defeat one another in case the use of force is introduced to finally resolve the relationship between Taiwan and China,” he said.
McDevitt concluded that Taiwan directly affects the military posture of the US in East Asia because of the need to maintain a deterrent capability.
“Long range planning that informs military modernization and future concept development in both Beijing and Washington is based on the possibility of direct conflict in case China elects to use force and the US intervenes to stop it,” he said.