Former US Pacific Command chief Harry Harris has called on Washington to reassess its long-standing policy of keeping its commitment to Taiwanâ€™s defense ambiguous, warning that China is seeking to â€œdominateâ€ the self-ruled island.
China is on a quest to â€œfirst isolate and then dominate Taiwan,â€ Harris, the US ambassador to South Korea until January, said in a recent interview with Kyodo News, joining a chorus of warnings from the US side over Beijingâ€™s stepped-up military pressure on Taipei.
The administration of US President Joe Biden has demanded that China cease its military, diplomatic and economic pressure against Taiwan, while assisting the democratic island in maintaining a â€œsufficient self-defense capabilityâ€ such as through arms sales.
At the same time, the US government has maintained an ambiguous position regarding the use of military force in response to a Chinese attack on Taiwan, a tactic known as â€œstrategic ambiguity.â€
But Harris, who led for three years until 2018 what has since become known as the US Indo-Pacific Command, said there was a need to re-examine the stance.
â€œWe should reconsider this, our longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity,â€ he said.
â€œIf, at the end of that reassessment, we keep the same policy, thatâ€™s fine. But we shouldnâ€™t keep it simply because weâ€™ve done it that way since the late 1970s,â€ he added, speaking from his home in the western state of Colorado.
The strategic ambiguity policy was adopted after US-Taiwan relations became â€œunofficialâ€ in 1979, with Washington switching its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
The policy is intended not only to deter China from using force against Taiwan but also to deter Taiwan from seeking independence, as neither Beijing nor Taipei can feel certain about US intervention to defend Taiwan should a conflict arise.
Harris said the United States should be â€œclearer in what our responsibilities areâ€ under the Taiwan Relations Act, a piece of US legislation that governs the unofficial ties with Taiwan, noting that Washington has â€œnot been consistentâ€ especially over its arms sales to Taiwan.
â€œIf youâ€™re not consistent in what you sell Taiwan or any other country, then how can they be how can they adequately plan for their military readiness, in the long run?â€ the former ambassador said.
His remarks appear to indicate cases in which weapons sales to Taiwan were delayed depending on US-China relations at the time.
â€œAmbiguity can get you in trouble,â€ he said.
Harris also said warnings issued by top US admirals in recent months portraying the threat of Chinese invasion of Taiwan as imminent should be taken â€œseriouslyâ€ and that the United States should â€œprepare accordingly.â€
Harrisâ€™ successor, Philip Davidson, said in March that China could try to invade Taiwan â€œin the next six years.â€
Adm. John Aquilino, the current head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, also warned that â€œthis problem is much closer to us than most thinkâ€ without specifying by when he expected the Chinese military to become capable of invading the island.
Taiwan and mainland China have been separately governed since they split as a result of a civil war in 1949. Beijing, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province, has since endeavored to bring the island into its fold.
Harris, meanwhile, was skeptical about any breakthrough in the near future amid the intensifying US-China competition, saying Washington and Beijing â€œfundamentally disagree on how to approach the current international order.â€
He blasted Beijing for its crackdown on Hong Kong democracy, human rights abuses against the Muslim Uyghur minority in Chinaâ€™s far-western Xinjiang region, intellectual property theft and â€œoutlandish territorial claimsâ€ to virtually all of the South China Sea.
â€œWe believe that the Chinese government doesnâ€™t keep its word,â€ he said.
In dealing with Chinaâ€™s growing assertiveness in the region, Harris said it is â€œcriticalâ€ that the United States and Japan hold military exercises together, given their common defense capabilities such as the F-35 stealth fighters and Aegis ships.
He also urged Japan and South Korea to set aside their disputes on wartime issues and focus on â€œwhatâ€™s happening todayâ€ in the Indo-Pacific region.
The cooperation between the United States and its two closest allies in Asia is â€œcritical in order to successfully meet the challenges that confront our three countries,â€ which include those related to China, he said.