The top US military official has expressed doubt that China wants to invade Taiwan, showing down rhetoric about the risk of war that has unsettled investors and other countries in the region.
“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, Brown said the US and its allies needed to pay attention to other efforts by Xi to increase pressure on the country “whether it’s militarily, diplomatically, economically”.
His remarks came as the US and China are trying to manage rising tensions in their relationship by restarting dialogue. President Joe Biden and Xi are set to meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum in San Francisco next week — only their second meeting as leaders.
Brown’s comments contrast with warnings from military and security officials earlier on in the Biden administration about a potential conflict over Taiwan.
Admiral Philip Davidson, then head of US forces in the Indo-Pacific, said in 2021 that China could take military action against Taiwan by 2027. Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, said last year that Taiwan faced an “acute” threat from China before 2030.
General Mike Minihan, a senior air force officer, said in January that the US and China would probably go to war in 2025, which sparked concern among allies that the US military was being too loose in its language.
Admiral John Aquilino, who succeeded Davidson in 2021, said that year that the threat of a Chinese invasion was “closer than most thought”. But earlier in 2023, he pushed back against colleagues who had predicted timelines. “I think everyone is guessing,” he told Congress in April.
In the wake of the Minihan comment, the Pentagon told top officers to stop making public pronouncements about possible dates. Senior Biden administration officials have also started stressing this year that they do not believe that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is imminent.
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 maneuvers around Taiwan, combining a military intimidation campaign with exercises honing the skills it needs for increasingly sophisticated operations.
Beijing, which has also said it prefers to resolve tensions with Taiwan peacefully, 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 held 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.
He added that when he started as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff 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. Beijing defends its actions by saying US aircraft are coming too close to China, even though they are flying in international airspace.
Additional reporting by Leo Lewis in Tokyo