The head of the CIA has warned that China appears determined on using force in Taiwan, with Russia’s experience in Ukraine only affecting Beijing’s calculations on when and how – rather than whether – to invade.
Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said on Wednesday that China probably saw in Ukraine that “you don’t achieve quick, decisive victories with underwhelming force”.
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China claims the self-ruled territory of Taiwan, where nationalists established a government in 1948 after losing power to the communists in the country’s civil war, is part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island.
Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, Burns said that China was “unsettled” when looking at Russia’s five-month-old war in Ukraine, which he characterised as a “strategic failure” for President Vladimir Putin because he had hoped to topple the Kyiv government within a week.
“Our sense is that it probably affects less the question of whether the Chinese leadership might choose some years down the road to use force to control Taiwan, but how and when they would do it,” Burns said.
“I suspect the lesson that the Chinese leadership and military are drawing is that you’ve got to amass overwhelming force if you’re going to contemplate that in the future,” he said.
Burns comments come amid continued tension between Washington and Beijing over a slew of issues including trade and Taiwan, as United States President Joe Biden revealed plans for a call with President Xi Jinping – the first between the two leaders in four months.
“I think I’ll be talking to President Xi within the next 10 days,” Biden told reporters as he returned from the state of Massachusetts.
The US calls China its main strategic rival and says high-level engagement is important to keeping the difficult relationship stable and prevent it from veering inadvertently into conflict.
Beijing’s ire was raised earlier this week when it was reported that House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi planned to visit Taiwan next month, and the destroyer USS Benfold travelled through the Taiwan Strait.
Beijing said it would respond with “forceful measures” if Pelosi’s trip went ahead, and on Wednesday Biden expressed doubt about whether it would go ahead.
“I think that the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now, but I don’t know what the status of it is,” Biden said.
Burns played down speculation that Xi could make a move on Taiwan after a key Communist Party meeting later this year, but said the risks “become higher, it seems to us, the further into this decade that you get”.
“I wouldn’t underestimate President Xi’s determination to assert China’s control” over Taiwan, he said.
Speaking before Burns at the forum in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, said that Beijing still preferred “peaceful reunification”, but he accused the US of supporting “independence” forces in Taiwan.
Beijing has stepped up its activities, including regular incursions into Taiwan’s air identification zone, since President Tsai Ing-wen, who has asserted the island’s separate identity, was first elected president in 2016.
While Qin said “no conflict and no war” was the biggest consensus between China and the US, he accused Washington of “hollowing out and blurring” its policy of formal recognition of Beijing.
“Only by adhering strictly to the One-China policy, only by joining hands to constrain and oppose Taiwan independence, can we have a peaceful reunification,” he said.
Washington established formal ties with Beijing in 1979, and at the same time pledged to help Taiwan defend itself. At the time, Taipei claimed to represent the whole of China, but since democratisation has stopped asserting that claim.
Officially, Washington maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the territory.
Last month, the State Department updated its fact sheet on Taiwan to reinstate a line about not supporting formal independence for the island.