Indo-Pacific Command nominee adds to concerns of Taiwan invasion by China

By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: March 25, 2021

HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — The likely new head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on Oahu told a Senate panel that the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan "is much closer to us than most think" but gave less specificity than current commander Adm. Phil Davidson, who recently cautioned such a move might happen in the next six years.

Adm. John Aquilino, the current leader of U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, said he agreed that Taiwan represents the most dangerous flashpoint for war.

"I know Adm. Davidson said six years. You have to ask him (how) he made that assessment," Aquilino said at a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing Tuesday. "There are spans from today to 2045. My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think."

The four-star admiral added that "we have to take this on" and put in place a $27.3 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative requested through 2027 to make China think twice. A total of $4.6 billion in extra funding is being sought in 2022.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii said she was "enthusiastically" endorsing Aquilino for the Indo-Pacific Command job.

"At a time when we are confronting an increasingly aggressive China and looking to deepen our defense ties with allies in the Indo-­Pacific, it is imperative we have an experienced leader at Indo-­Pacific Command capable of meeting the urgency and sensitivity of the moment."

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command at Camp H.M. Smith covers more than half the globe, has seven of the world's 10 largest standing militaries, and is the "priority theater" for the Defense Department.

If approved by the U.S. Senate, Aquilino would replace Davidson, who became commander of Indo-Pacific Command on May 30, 2018, and will be retiring.

Aquilino told the Senate panel that China views the annexation of Taiwan "as their No. 1 priority."

"The rejuvenation of the Chinese Communist Party is at stake," he said. It's "very critical as they look at the problem."

He added that "from a military standpoint, the strategic location of where (Taiwan) is, as it applies to the potential impact of two-thirds of the world's trade, (it's) certainly a critical concern."

Aquilino was asked by Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, what it would mean if the People's Liberation Army could base ships and aircraft in Taiwan.

"Certainly it would extend their reach," Aquilino said. "It would extend the contested environment. It would threaten our allies and partners — think the Philippines."

Cotton said a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could occur in the near future. "It's not a 2045, it's not a 2030 problem. I suspect it may not even be a 2026 problem," Cotton said.

Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican from Florida, noted China's moves against Hong Kong and asked why China hasn't been more aggressive with Taiwan.

"I don't know how to answer that one, senator," Aquilino said. "I think what I would articulate is we've seen aggressive actions earlier than we anticipated, whether it be on the Indian border or whether it be in Hong Kong or whether it be against (Muslim minority) Uighurs. We're seeing things that I don't think we expected, and that's why I continue to talk about a sense of urgency. We ought to be prepared today."

Indo-Pacific Command "requires highly survivable, precision strike networks" with ground-based missiles along the first island chain that connects Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative states.

As for preventing an invasion of Taiwan specifically, "I think an increase in our forward deterrent posture, as identified by Adm. Davidson ... is a great first start," Aquilino said.

Forces are needed that can respond quickly and "not just just our forces —those forces combined with the international community, with our allies and partners ... would position us very strongly for the deterrence required," he said.

Aquilino was asked if Japan was doing enough to prepare for the "aggressive actions" that China is threatening in the region.

"I believe that they are concerned," he said. "I'm extremely happy with the interoperability, the coordination and the relationship that we have with the Japanese."

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