A number of former US officials and academics ranked Taiwan the No. 1 flashpoint in US-China relations with the potential to trigger military conflict, a US congressional commission hearing on Thursday heard.
Thomas Shugart, a former military adviser in the Office of Net Assessment at the US Department of Defense, told the online hearing on “Deterring PRC [People’s Republic of China] Aggression Toward Taiwan” that he would not put the South China Sea, an area some see as a flashpoint, anywhere close to the same level as Taiwan.
“To me, it’s not really about the South China Sea itself; it’s the first step in securing the broader lines of communication and ability to secure their economic means to be able to be successful in that more vital conflict over their sovereignty that they consider for Taiwan,” he said.
Bonny Lin, who served in the Office of the US Secretary of Defense from 2015 to 2018, agreed, saying she ranks Taiwan as the top conflict hotspot, mainly because Beijing has defined Taiwan as a core interest and China is set on unification with Taiwan.
“And from our perspective, we’re Taiwan’s main security provider. And we’re already seeing this escalation dynamic, and particularly in the last year or so, tend to be really heating up in the Taiwan Strait,” she added.
From China’s point of view, Taiwan is unquestionably fundamental to Beijing’s legitimacy, said David Keegan, a former deputy director of the American Institute in Taiwan.
“From our point of view, it’s fundamental to our values and our role in the Asia-Pacific region. And that’s a recipe for confrontation that we’re both going to have to work very carefully, with Taiwan’s active participation, to avoid,” he said.
Repeated flights of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) airplanes near Taiwan and Taiwan’s response also pose the risk of an accident, Keegan said.
“In the current environment, that kind of accident probably won’t play out the way the incident did in 2001, where we were able to talk our way down. That really worries me,” he said.
Keegan was referring to a 2001 collision between US and Chinese military aircraft, in which a US surveillance plane made an emergency landing in China after being clipped by a Chinese fighter jet, which crashed, resulting in the death of the pilot.
When asked if Taiwan’s role in the international arena could prompt China to resort to force, Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert with a focus on Chinese military and security policy issues, said that increasing international space for Taiwan would not increase the risk of conflict.
“Until the PLA, until [Chinese President] Xi Jinping [習近平] is confident that his military can succeed, they’re not going to use force unless ... some major change happens like Taiwan declares independence. And I don’t think increasing international space for Taiwan meets that threshold,” Mastro said.
The hearing was organized by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
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