WASHINGTON ― The Pentagon on Tuesday stopped short of supporting U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s new assessment that China is moving to seize Taiwan “on a much faster timeline” than previously thought.
“There has been a change in the approach from Beijing toward Taiwan in recent years,” Blinken said during an event Monday at Stanford University.
The remarks came as China held its twice-a-decade Communist Party congress, where Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly said “the wheels of history are rolling on toward China’s reunification.” Xi said Beijing would strive for a peaceful reunification with Taiwan, a self-governing island it regards as part of its territory, but never renounce the right to use force.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon’s press secretary, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, declined to say whether Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin agrees with Blinken’s assessment and whether it stands by its previous assessment.
“Our focus is on preserving stability and security throughout the region. Our policy in regards to China and Taiwan has not changed,” he said. “Our focus will continue to be on deterring potential military action and to calling on both sides to resolve these issues peacefully.”
The military continues to regard China as its pacing challenge, Ryder added.
In March of last year, Adm. Philip Davidson, then commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee China wanted the ability to take Taiwan by 2027.
On Sept. 7, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for policy, Colin Kahl, said the Pentagon’s assessment hadn’t changed ― and he hoped Xi would take a lesson from Russia’s faltering invasion of Ukraine, “that, hey, maybe we shouldn’t” annex Taiwan.
“I don’t think that they’ve sped up their clock,” Kahl said of the Chinese government. “It’s no mystery that Xi Jinping has given his military until 2027 to develop the military capability to forcefully reunify with Taiwan, if he makes the decision to do that. But I’ve seen no indication that he’s made that decision to do so. And in the meantime, our policy will remain the same.”
In Blinken’s remarks Monday, which came in a conversation with former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, he said China was willing to do whatever it takes to seize Taiwan.
“If peaceful means didn’t work, then it would employ coercive means,” he said. “And possibly, if coercive means don’t work, then maybe forceful means to achieve its objectives. And that is what is profoundly disrupting the status quo and creating tremendous tensions.”
China, with the world’s second-largest military budget after the United States, is trying to extend its reach by developing ballistic missiles, aircraft carriers and overseas outposts. On Sunday, Xi called for faster military development.
“We will work faster to modernize military theory, personnel and weapons,” Xi said. “We will enhance the military’s strategic capabilities.”
He also said “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan,” and only China and Taiwan can resolve the matter.
“The wheels of history are rolling on toward China’s reunification and rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and the complete reunification of the motherland must be achieved and can definitely be achieved,” Xi reportedly said.
Xi made no mention of 2027 or any other timeline, and his comments “did not break new ground,” according to Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“There is no new signal of greater urgency than we have seen in the past,” Glaser said in an analysis posted this week. “Somewhat greater emphasis on warning foreigners to not interfere, perhaps.”
Likewise, Shirley Martey Hargis, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, said Xi wants to keep other powers from aligning with Taiwan, but that doesn’t mean action is coming.
“There is no imminent threat from China to take Taiwan militarily,” Martey Hargis said.
Xi’s efforts to seek a third term in office fueled calls, mostly from Republicans, to boost U.S. defenses against the Chinese Communist Party. The House Armed Services Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., said China’s seizure of Taiwan, a major semiconductor producer, would threaten U.S. security and prosperity.
“Xi’s intent to amass the most advanced army and navy in the world should be a wakeup call for the U.S. and our allies to boost our own defenses in the Indo-Pacific region,” Rogers said in a statement. “Specifically, the U.S. must increase the production of munitions, modernize our nuclear deterrent, increase the size of our Navy, and continue our work to get China out of our supply chain.”
The Senate’s draft annual defense authorization bill includes $10 billion in military aid for Taiwan, which is more than double the initial amount proposed. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill in November.
With reporting by The Associated Press.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.