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The US’s most senior military official has expressed doubt that China wants to invade Taiwan, toning down rhetoric about the risk of war that has unsettled other countries in the region as well as investors.
“I do think that [Chinese president] Xi Jinping doesn’t actually want to take Taiwan by force. He will try to use other ways to do this,” General Charles Brown, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, told reporters in Tokyo.
Pointing to the difficulty of the beach landing required to bring invasion troops to Taiwan, he said the US and its allies needed to pay attention to other efforts by the Chinese leader to increase pressure on the country “whether it’s militarily, diplomatically, economically”.
Brown’s remarks came as Washington and Beijing are trying to manage the growing tensions in their relationship by restarting dialogue. US president Joe Biden and Xi are expected to meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (Apec) in San Francisco next week — only their second meeting as leaders.
Brown’s remarks contrast with warnings from other military and security officials over the past two and a half years about a potential conflict over Taiwan.
Admiral Philip Davidson, then head of US forces in the Pacific, said in March 2021 that China could take military action against Taiwan by 2027. His successor, Admiral John Aquilino, said the same month that the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was “closer than most think”. Last year, Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, said Taiwan faced an “acute” threat from China before 2030.
China claims the island as part of its territory and has threatened to attack if Taipei resists unification indefinitely or external forces intervene.
Over the past several years, the People’s Liberation Army has increased manoeuvres around Taiwan, combining a military intimidation campaign with exercises honing the skills it needs for increasingly sophisticated operations.
Beijing has also said it prefers to resolve tensions with Taiwan peacefully, and is employing a range of other tactics including trade barriers and disinformation campaigns to undermine the country’s de facto independence.
While foreign policy and economic officials have had some talks, communication between military leaders has remained suspended since Beijing cut it in response to then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August last year.
“I think there’s an opportunity and . . . as the president meets with Xi next week we’ll get an indication that there is some interest [in re-establishing military communications channels],” Brown said. “I realise that there’s been other levels of communication across the diplomatic [sic] or through Commerce and the Treasury, but this is the one that we haven’t had.”
He added that when he started as chair of the joint chiefs early last month, he had written a letter to his counterpart, General Liu Zhenli, chief of staff of the PLA’s joint staff department, introducing himself and saying he was “willing to open a line of communication”.
Both Chinese and western military officials have been stepping up warnings about the risk of an accident in the air or at sea as Chinese and US forces challenge each other in the region. The Pentagon last month accused the PLA of conducting hundreds of “coercive and risky” intercepts of military flights of the US and its allies during the past two years, and released pictures and video footage of several.
Additional reporting by Leo Lewis in Tokyo
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