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Former US defence chief says one-China policy has 'outlived its usefulness'

·4 min read

Former US defence chief Mark Esper has said the US should abandon its "strategic ambiguity" policy towards Taiwan, which leaves unclear whether it would defend the island against a potential attack from Beijing.

"It is my personal view that the one-China policy has outlived its usefulness, that it is time to move away from strategic ambiguity," he said in a meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen at her office on Tuesday.

Esper is heading a three-member delegation of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, on a four-day Taiwan visit that began on Monday.

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Beijing regards the self-ruled island as part of its territory under its one-China principle. The US' one-China policy recognises Beijing to be the legitimate government of China, but only acknowledges - and does not endorse - its position that Taiwan is a part of China.

The US, which recognises Beijing diplomatically, has maintained what the US State Department calls "robust unofficial ties" with Taiwan. It has been a long-time arms supplier for Taipei to help defend the island from potential attack from mainland China, which has repeatedly vowed to take Taiwan back - by force if necessary.

Washington has long adopted a strategic ambiguity policy of neither confirming nor denying whether it would defend Taiwan against a potential attack from Beijing.

President Joe Biden has in recent months sparked controversy by asserting the US "commitment" to defend Taiwan if it is attacked by the PLA. But the White House hastened to walk back his remarks each time, clarifying there was no change in the policy of strategic ambiguity.

"I think it's important that we begin that national discussion [on strategic ambiguity] back in the United States. It would help us educate the American people if we can also point to bold decisions being made in Taipei," Esper said.

Those decisions could include an increase in the island's defence spending, adoption of asymmetric warfare and corresponding capabilities, lengthening mandatory military service and reserve mobilisation, he said.

"It is important that the American people and our leaders in Washington fully see that the Taiwan people are fully committed to standing up to communist China and defending themselves as we, the democracies of the world, stand behind Taiwan," he said.

He said Russia's invasion of Ukraine had proved that autocrats continue to exist and threaten global democracies.

"But the greatest challenge facing the democracies of the West today is not in Russia. It is here in Asia where China continues to challenge the rules-based international order [and] threatens freedom-loving people throughout the region," he said, adding Taiwan was on the front lines of the challenge posed by Beijing.

He said it was important for Western democracies to stand up and defend democracies such as Taiwan against Beijing's bullying.

Esper and his group will meet other senior government officials and business leaders to discuss trade, diplomatic matters and security in Taiwan.

The former Pentagon chief and two other delegates - Barry Pavel, senior vice-president and director of the Atlantic Council, and Stefano Stefanini, former Italian permanent representative to Nato and currently a non-resident senior fellow of the council - also met Eric Chu, chairman of Taiwan's main opposition party, the Kuomintang, on Monday.

Esper's visit comes as Nicola Beer, vice-president of the European Parliament, arrived in Taipei on Tuesday for a three-day trip.

Beer, the most senior European Parliament official to have visited the island so far, told reporters that there was "no room for Chinese aggression in democratic Taiwan" and that Europe would not "turn a blind eye" to Beijing's threat to Taipei. She is expected to meet Tsai on Wednesday and other senior Taiwanese officials during her trip.

Beijing has ramped up pressure on Taiwan in recent years by staging war games near the island and sending warplanes into its air defence identification zone almost daily.

It has also warned countries that recognise Beijing against establishing official contact with or supplying arms to the island.

On Monday, Beijing condemned Washington for approving a new round of arms sales to Taiwan, saying it was an "evil scheme" for the US to try to use the island to counter the mainland.

It demanded that the US cancel the deal, which includes US$108 million in military technical and logistic support for the island. It is the fifth US arms sale to the island since US President Joe Biden took office in 2021 and the fourth this year.

Esper's visit also comes amid reports that US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to visit Taiwan next month in a trip that is expected to rile Beijing.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.