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WASHINGTON – Days after a Chinese spy balloon roamed across the US, a top former military and diplomatic official urged President Biden to act like his predecessor toward Beijing, saying the “[Trump] administration’s tougher approach is right.”
Retired Navy Adm. Harry Harris, who headed US Indo-Pacific Command for three years and later served as the 45th president’s ambassador to South Korea, called on Biden to make it clear that the US will defend Taiwan if China invades the democratically governed island.
“[Chinese President] Xi Jinping has showed us his intent regarding Taiwan time and time again, and shame on us if we ignore him,” Harris told the House Armed Services Committee. “We must not allow the [Chinese government] to dictate America’s Taiwan policy.”
Reunification with Taiwan is Xi’s top stated goal, and experts fear an attempt to overthrow Taipei by force could spark war within the decade. The Biden administration has hesitated to align too much with Taiwan to avoid triggering China, but Harris said Beijing has already made overtaking the democratically governed island its main objective.
“My successor at Indo-Pacific Command [Navy Adm. Phil Davidson] testified before Congress in 2021 that the [People’s Republican of China] could invade Taiwan in six years – that’s 2027,” he said. “We ignore [his] warning at our peril.”
Tensions between Washington and Beijing have simmered in recent years over China’s aggressive economic and territorial practices — as well as its rapid military growth. Former President Donald Trump, 76, was the first to prioritize countering China on the national agenda, shifting the US military’s primary threat focus from the Middle East to Beijing in his administration’s 2018 National Defense Strategy.
While Biden’s 2022 strategy kept China as its top priority, Harris said the White House needs to sharpen its rhetoric, saying it would help deter China from moving on the island and enable Taipei to “make the decision to either defend themselves or to capitulate to China.”
“But most importantly, the American people need to know because it’s your sons and daughters that are gonna do the fighting and die,” he said.
Harris also insisted that Biden should formally refer to China as an “adversary” rather than the current preferred nomenclature of “strategic competitor.”
“[China] views us as an enemy; they view us as an adversary,” he said. “And to be naïve – to operate in the naïve hope that we’re all going to, you know, be friends in the end – is the most dangerous thing and that itself leads to instability.”
“If we go in with eyes wide open and we’re willing to engage diplomatically and they are willing to engage diplomatically, I think we can coexist in a world of strategic competition that doesn’t rise to the level of armed conflict,” he added.
But diplomacy suffered a setback last week after Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a trip to China in response to its release of the massive surveillance balloon into US airspace.
“Beijing’s actions are coordinated, methodical, strategic,” Harris said “Last week’s spy balloon drama playing out on the doorstep of the secretary of state’s planned visit to Beijing typifies PRC bad behavior and disregard for international norms.”
Melanie Sisson, foreign policy fellow at the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, criticized the cancelation of Blinken’s trip, saying it was a missed opportunity to have tough conversations with Chinese leaders.
“We need those high-level contacts,” she told lawmakers. “It would have been an opportunity to discuss crisis management, for example, in addition to being able to press the CCP on their other such problematic behaviors worldwide.”