The United States is casting doubt on China’s willingness to launch a blockade of Taiwan as part of any effort by Beijing to take the island by force.
China’s military has staged multiple drills, most recently this past April, which state media described as efforts to simulate a possible blockade. But a top Pentagon official said Thursday that any attempt by China to carry out a blockade in real life could backfire badly.
“The cost for Beijing looks very high, and the risk looks very, very high,” Ely Ratner, the Defense Department’s assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, told an audience in Washington.
“What happens the very minute that the PRC starts mounting a blockade against Taiwan? The global economy falls through the floor,” he said. “There will be no one immune from the economic pain that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] would place on the world.”
Ratner said the devastating economic impact of a blockade would also likely rally the international community around Taipei and against Beijing.
He also warned that despite China’s military advances, the Pentagon does not assess that Beijing has the capability of completely sealing off the island.
“We think that Taiwan would still have options on its own and with the international community to deliver the kind of industrial supplies and raw materials, food and energy it would need to sustain its society,” Ratner said, which would likely put the Chinese military in a difficult position.
“Ultimately, it would be up to Beijing to decide whether it wanted to start attacking commercial vessels to sustain a blockade,” he said. “The risk of escalation is extremely high.”
Ratner is not alone in questioning China’s appetite for a military conflict.
The director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said late Wednesday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, now dragging into its 18th month, may be giving Chinese President Xi Jinping reason to pause.
“If he is watching Ukraine carefully, he will realize how hard that is,” Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier said during an event outside Washington. “He's probably thinking about his [own] general officer corps and all of his services [and] thinking, ‘Do these guys have the grit and the know-how and the resilience to be able to do this?’
“Their last war was in 1979 with Vietnam,” he said. “That didn't go as well as they wanted it to. And so, there are probably some doubts in their mind right now.”
The comments from Berrier and Rater come as the Pentagon is preparing to release its annual China Military Power report.
Last year’s report warned China had doubled its nuclear weapons arsenal to more than 400 warheads and was on pace to field about 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035.
The 2022 report also warned of China’s increasing number of “unsafe and unprofessional” encounters with the U.S. military and its allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific region.
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The Defense Department’s Ratner said Thursday the United States is continuing to watch China’s nuclear build-up carefully.
“We are concerned about the lack of transparency," he said, adding it is one of the reasons the Pentagon continues to push Beijing for open lines of communication between high-level U.S. and Chinese military officials.
"We are not where we need to be and not where we should be,” Ratner said, adding that high-level communication between top Pentagon officials and their counterparts in Beijing “have been largely turned off over the last year.”
Top Chinese officials have stated publicly that they seek a peaceful solution to the question of Taiwan, but that China will not “flinch from provocations.”
U.S. military and intelligence officials assess that China’s military has been ordered to be ready to take Taiwan by force, perhaps as early as 2025, but that the Chinese government and Xi Jinping have not made a decision on whether to order an invasion.
The United States has a “One China” policy, which acknowledges that Beijing considers Taiwan to be part of China. The U.S., however, considers Taiwan’s status unsettled and sends military aid to the self-governed island to help it defend itself.