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US has no need to change its ‘strategic ambiguity’ about Taiwan, says ex-national security adviser H.R. McMaster

One of America’s most prominent national security advisers told lawmakers on Tuesday that Washington does not need to change its “strategic ambiguity” policy towards Taiwan to a more explicit defence guarantee, while also calling for a larger military presence in the region to counter Beijing’s operations there more aggressively.

H.R. McMaster, the retired three-star Army general who served as an national security adviser to former president Donald Trump, testified in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that he disagreed with an assessment by Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and some other policy analysts that a change to “strategic clarity” with regard to the self-governing island was needed.

“Strategic ambiguity is adequate, especially after we’ve made public the six assurances to Taiwan, and I think if we act in the way that the Trump administration has acted, and the new Biden administration has acted, to assure Taiwan and to send a pretty clear message to China,” McMaster said, referring to commitments Washington made to Taipei to disregard Beijing when it comes to US arms sales to the island.

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Beijing considers Taiwan a wayward province that must be reunited to the mainland fold eventually, by force if necessary.

“The message to China ought to be, ‘Hey, you can assume that the United States won’t respond – but that was the assumption made in June of 1950, as well, when North Korea invaded South Korea,’ McMaster said.

“I know it would strike home to all of you that this is an Article One [constitutional] issue, to go to war or to not go to war,” he added. “If that crisis occurs, I’m sure that all of you and your colleagues would reflect the will of the American people and what we do about it.”

Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution – the only other witness called for Tuesday’s panel – agreed that the status quo should serve as enough of a deterrent against an invasion of Taiwan by mainland China’s People’s Liberation Army, which Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, said was “geared increasingly towards” such a move.

“I wouldn’t revisit the concept of strategic ambiguity, but I think through actions, we can … deter this action and demonstrate the US commitment to a stronger and closer relationship with Taiwan,” Wright said.

However, both witnesses’ stances on Taiwan policy came with urgent calls for closer coordination with allies in the region and a significant ramp-up in spending on ships and equipment to offset China’s newly developed technological ability to interfere with US military capabilities.

McMaster called the months between the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in 2022 and the Chinese Communist Party congress scheduled for later that year a period of “greatest danger”, and said “a race ongoing right now, to help Taiwan harden its defences to make itself indigestible”, was crucial.

McMaster said he supported a Trump administration goal, outlined in a strategy document released in December, of expanding the US Navy to as many as 446 manned vessels by 2045, up from a goal of 355 the Navy announced in 2016.

The Navy and the Pentagon have been working on a fleet structure plan since 2019, one that is expected to develop “a more distributed fleet architecture featuring a smaller proportion of larger ships, a larger proportion of smaller ships, and a new third tier of large unmanned vehicles”, according to a report last month by the US Congressional Research Service.

McMaster supported the call for a larger, more distributed fleet because, he said, China and Russia have in the past 20 years developed technologies including big data analytics, GPS and precision strike capabilities that threaten US naval operations more than ever.

“Since World War I, the smaller and smaller US joint forces have had bigger and bigger impacts over wider areas based on our technological advantages,” he said.

“All of that now was challenged, because Russia, China and others, they studied us, especially after the Gulf War, and they developed capabilities to take apart those differential advantages,” McMaster added.

The Biden administration must submit its proposed 30-year budget for shipbuilding later this year, which will require congressional approval, and has not yet indicated whether it will support the Trump administration’s goal.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP’s Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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