The Taiwan Strait has reemerged as a major geopolitical flashpoint, one that could bring the United States and China, two nuclear-armed powers and the world’s two largest economies, into a direct military confrontation. The CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force analyzes political, military, and economic dynamics in the Taiwan Strait and proposes policy recommendations for the United States to deter an increasingly assertive and capable China.
SCHMEMANN: Good afternoon and welcome to this independent task force event. I’m Anya Schmemann, managing director of the Independent Task Force Program here at the Council on Foreign Relations. And I’m very pleased to present our latest task force report, U.S.-Taiwan Relations in a New Era: Responding to a More Assertive China.
Task force reports are meaningful. They represent the consensus of our task force members, a diverse, bipartisan group of experts. The fact that this group was able to reach accord on U.S. policy toward Taiwan, albeit with a few additional or partially dissenting views which you can find at the back of the report, reveals the enormous stakes that the United States has in the Taiwan Strait and the desire for peace and stability in the region.
This report is the culmination of nearly a year of work from our cochairs, project director, task force members and observers, and our staff here at CFR. My thanks go to our taskforce cochairs, Sue Gordon and Mike Mullen, for their leadership and wisdom throughout this project and for being here to present the report today. I’d also like to recognize task force project director David Sacks, who held the pen of the group and drafted the report’s findings and recommendations. I am grateful to all our taskforce members and observers who convened several times over the past year to deliberate on these issues and provided important feedback during our process. Some have joined us here in person and some are virtual with us today.
I’d also like to thank Admiral Harry Harris, who participated in our research trip to Taiwan earlier this year and is joining our cochairs and director on stage to present the report today. And I’d like to acknowledge my task force colleagues, Chelie Setzer and Connor Sutherland, and the many departments and staff members at CFR who make these reports possible. Finally, I’d like to thank CFR President Richard Haass for his leadership and his strong support of the Task Force Program during his twenty years at the Council.
I hope you enjoy today’s discussion. I now turn it over to our moderator, Farah Stockman. Thank you.
STOCKMAN: Hi, everyone. Can you hear me? Yes? OK. I’m Farah Stockman. I’m on the Editorial Board of the New York Times. And thank you all for being here today for the release of this consequential report on a consequential subject. I remember sitting in this room during the Iraq War. And it seemed like every decision the U.S. government made about Iraq was monumental for the Middle East. And today, every decision that’s made about Taiwan it feels like is monumental for the world. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that if the United States and China were to get into a conflict over Taiwan, there’s no country in the world that would be unaffected. So it’s a big deal. This is big stuff.
So before we get started, just some housekeeping. Please turn off your cellphones, please, please. I promise you, you can live without your cellphone for an hour. Silence it or turn it off. This is on the record. And I’m going to engage with this very distinguished group for thirty minutes, or at about twenty-five minutes, then I’m going to open it up for questions from all of you, which I’m sure are going to be brilliant.
So since you haven’t had a chance to really digest the report, I’m just going to set the table with three things that jumped out at me about it. Among the many conclusions of this report are that, one, we’re not making enough weapons to defend both Ukraine and Taiwan at the same time. Two, even if we were, giving weapons to Taiwan is not enough to defend it. The U.S. military would have to be directly involved to defend it properly. Is that fair to say? And, three, even that would not be enough. We need our allies to be a part of defense. And we’re not quite sure yet how far they would go to participate. Is that—that’s all fair? OK, so that’s sobering. That was sobering to me to learn.
So, Admiral Mullen, can we start with you? I want to—I want to ask you to make the case for the vital importance of Taiwan. Make the case right now to the American people. Why should we risk a war with China, with a nuclear-armed rival that is the factory of the world?
MULLEN: So we actually had quite a debate over the course of the many months that we worked on this in terms of whether this is a vital national interest, a vital interest, an interest, et cetera. And where we came down, and you’ll see it in the report, is this is a vital interest of the United States. And there are a number of reasons for that. Probably the most significant is this is an island that is the center of the four of the five top economies in the world.
And if I can maybe put it in practical terms, if we go back to 2000 and dot-com, or we go to ’08 and ’09 and what happened when the economies tanked after that, or when we actually went into the recession for the pandemic, and you think about the impact of that, this would make—going to war with China, for any reason and obviously this is a centerpiece—I think would make all of those economic impacts seem small compared to what would happen globally, not just between the United States and China. And that’s principally because—for two reasons. One is because our economies are very heavily linked, and secondly because of Taiwan’s impact on the semiconductor industry, where they manufacture 60 to 70 percent of the semiconductors in the world, and 90 percent of the key semiconductors—the most important semiconductors in the world as well.
So that—a war with China over anything, including Taiwan, would devastate the globe. It would also then put the two biggest global competitors at each other’s throats for a long period of time. So we need to do—and the report gets at this—we need to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen. Part of the debate that we had is what to call this report, you know, inside the staff, and you obviously see what the result is. But if I can sum it up, I worry that we’re just drifting into war. And I don’t like to drift into anything. I like to understand it, make sure that we’ve prepared as well as we can.
And I think you will see in the report that we talk about deterrence, which is failing over many years. And we can have debates about that, per se, but clearly China is much more aggressive, much more coercive on the military side, on the diplomatic side, on the economic side, and on the political side. And it needs to be—my view is, or our view, that it needs to be rebalanced because tensions are so high. We’re at an all-time low for the relationship. Rebalancing that means we’re going to have to take pretty aggressive steps which, at a time of high tensions, could be read the wrong way. So it is a very, very fragile time in terms of resolving this peacefully, which is what we want to do.
STOCKMAN: So, just to follow up on that, you spent most of your career thinking about the Middle East. Is that fair to say?
MULLEN: That’s fair to say.
STOCKMAN: What assumptions did you bring to this project? And how did your thinking change over time?
MULLEN: Well, part of the reason—and we talked about this a little bit off-camera—in the four years I was chairman, from ’07 to ’11, I didn’t spend a minute on Taiwan. I was focused obviously on the Middle East, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we had a pretty significant terror issue that we were going after. And I think that’s not a broad brush across the entire military complex, if you will. Admiral Harris certainly spent a fair amount of time because he was running PACOM during his time. But from my perspective, I didn’t have the in-depth knowledge, first of all.
Secondly, we don’t allow senior officers on the ground in Taiwan. Never have. So the level of knowledge that I had with respect to this—a lot of knowledge about the theater, a lot of specific knowledge about Taiwan that I didn’t have at my fingertips. And certainly, this task force has allowed me to dive deep on these issues in many, many ways. Not least of which is to understand it’s an extraordinarily complex issue. There’s a history part of
this report that I would commend to everybody because it has evolved over time and it’s not something that’s just recently occurred. There’s a lot there that also applies to what’s going on right now.
STOCKMAN: Admiral Harris, I want to bring you in. What can you tell us about China’s preparations for a possible conflict? And what can you tell us about Taiwan’s capacity to defend itself?
HARRIS: So important questions. I think that over time, beginning in the last decade or so, certainly this century, we have seen the PRC, People’s Republic of China, become far more aggressive in their discourse about Taiwan. They have assured us—you know, we talk a little bit about strategic clarity and strategic ambiguity, and all that. The PRC has been strategically clear about their intent with regard to Taiwan. They will take Taiwan, restore it to their view of Taiwan’s place in the Chinese panoply of territory. They will do it either peacefully or, if necessary, militarily. And you can’t get clearer than that.
And they’re building a military to confront the United States, our military, and those of our friends, allies, and partners. They’re building a military that can confront us on the high seas, airspace above the seas, and in cyberspace. Some people believe that they are already there. I’m not one of them. I believe that today, in 2023, we exceed the PRC’s military capability in all domains. But it’s temporal, right? I mean, it’s—we’d have to continue to innovate and resource our military, your military, in order to maintain that edge to dissuade, to deter the PRC from doing what they say—what they say they’ll do if peaceful reunification doesn’t work.
With regard to Taiwan’s military itself, I visited there twice this year. I came away impressed by their understanding and their determination of the nature of the problem set. For sure, Russia on Ukraine has galvanized the Taiwanese. And they understand the magnitude of the problem. But for all of us, if we allow an autocratic, big country to have its way with smaller democratic countries—e.g., for example, Ukraine or Taiwan—then the global world order as we know it is finished. Might will make right unless free nations, like the United States and our friends, allies, and partners, stand up to what’s happening in Europe and what could happen in East Asia.
STOCKMAN: So, just to follow up on that, you were the ambassador to South Korea. You were the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. Why don’t we know more about what our allies would be willing to do? Especially given that one of the rationales in the report to protect Taiwan is that it would make it easier to protect Japan and South Korea. Why—
HARRIS: Yeah, so our allies are coming to the realization of the danger that’s resident in the PRC. We see that in Japan from Abe Shinzo through Prime Minister Kishida now. We see it in Australia under the Morrison administration and Peter Dutton, who is the minister of defense. He famously said that, quote, “of course we would go to war to protect Taiwan if the United States did.” So we’re seeing a change in the view of our allies with regard to Taiwan and what could happen.
But to be fair to them, we are ambiguous on whether we would defend Taiwan or not. And I say “we,” that’s the United States, except for one notable exception. The president of the United States has said four time he will defend Taiwan. I think we take him at his word and plan accordingly.
STOCKMAN: I should just say that I have a friend who’s an American businessman in Shanghai. He’s married to a woman from Taiwan. And I asked him, should we defend Taiwan. And he said, only if Japan and South Korea are with us. So I was—it was interesting to read in your report that they’re a big ambiguous as well.
Director Gordon, how much do we know about what will deter China and President Xi, and what will trigger him? Because this report talks about building up, getting on a war footing so as to deter a war. But so much could signal that we are ready to go to war, and, you know, bring about that which we’re trying to prevent. So you spent your career in intelligence. You spent twenty-five years at the CIA. What do we know about this important question of what will trigger a war versus what will deter a war?
GORDON: So I think the first thing we know is that the equation is in his head, right? It is—it is his interest and his moment when he decides what needs to happen. So just—we need to—we need to hold that as true. We are, however, seeing a number of things that are different than they were a minute ago, and suggest that this peace that has held is increasingly fragile and that which can’t happen feels like, as Mike says, we’re drifting toward it. And here’s what I would say.
Number one, his statements. And not only his statements that reunification is a national interest, but it’s not something that he can pass down to somebody else. And there are people who make the argument, is it because he’s in a much tougher economic position so he needs something legacy, or whether he just believes it from a nationalist perspective, that is certainly—from his words—much more aggressive statement.
Number two is coercive actions toward Taiwan. You know, I looked at the world for a long time. If you remember Russia and Ukraine, why did Russia turn off the power in Ukraine? It was not—in 2014—it was not to turn off the power in Ukraine. It was to say, we own you. If you look at China’s actions in Taiwan of being more proactive, whether from a cyber influence perspective or with military action. They are saying their intention to reduce the will.
Certainly their military power is greater. And then what’s happening in the South China Sea and globally, if you take those together, you will infer that if he hasn’t made a decision he is certainly building the capabilities so that is a decision that could be made that is less far away for him than it was five years ago.
STOCKMAN: But you’re convinced that deterrence is possible with enough—
GORDON: I believe you have to work to defer, but the deterrence that we’ve been practicing that has held is looking like it’s not having the same influence on his equation. And so if you look at the study and how we break down deterrence in diplomatic and security and economic means, it is really aimed at two things—being clear about our interests, and that our interests will not be affected by China’s coercion of us to be smaller. Two, increasing Taiwan’s resilience. And three is doing what we can to make sure that Taiwan legitimately has its ability to participate in the global economy. And so I think you’ll see that the deterrent actions are less passive, but they are still aimed against the same historic perspective of a one China.
STOCKMAN: So you mentioned one China, I want to bring in David over there. So there is—well, let’s just say Chinese officials would say that in 1979 the United States acknowledged that there’s only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it. Did we in fact do that?
SACKS: Well, you used a very important word there, which is “acknowledge.” And in 1972 in the Shanghai Communique and in 1979 in our normalization communique, that’s in fact all we did. We acknowledged the Chinese position that there is one China and Taiwan is a part of China, but we did not recognize, affirm, or endorse that view. So while the United States doesn’t support Taiwan independence, you know, nor do we endorse the PRC’s perspective that Taiwan is essentially a reengage province that has to be returned to the PRC at some point in the future. I think it’s fair to say that the U.S. position is that Taiwan’s status is undetermined. But we don’t know a position on what the ultimate status of Taiwan is. Instead, we stress—and the report endorses this policy—that process is important. That any resolution of cross-strait issues must be arrived at peacefully and with the consent of the people of Taiwan.
And so, you know, to echo what Admiral Mullen said, I think it’s important for people to go back to the history section of this report and consult other sources to see how we got here and what the elements are of the U.S. policy towards Taiwan and our one China policy, because it wasn’t created to be intelligible. (Laughter.) It is—it is multiple sleights of hand kind of all rolled into one. And I think it is really important to grapple with that and see what we pledged to do and not do, and what we left ambiguous and preserved our freedom of action and maneuver over.
And, you know, it’s interesting to see when Secretary Blinken says something that has been U.S. policy now for decades, that the United States does not support Taiwan independence, some jump on that and say that that’s a departure, that’s a concession to Beijing, or he sold out Taiwan in his meetings in Beijing, which wasn’t the case. And so if we took the time to look at the nuances here, then I think we’re in a better position to do what we’ve all been talking about during this.
STOCKMAN: But I just want to push you on that, because did we—did we agree to disagree back in 1979? Or did we paper over—did we, let’s say, lie? I mean—(laughs)—because you can see in the history, which you all spell out so clearly, that, you know, there were promises made to—that we wouldn’t arm Taiwan forever, that eventually—Reagan didn’t set an end date, but he did say that arms shipments would taper off. There were—you know, we would—we would cut off official relations with Taiwan. But, you know, anyone who’s been to Taipei, who’s been to our institute in Taipei, it looks, and speaks, and smells just like an embassy. So, like, you know, at what—how much of this is papered over and how much of this is what Chinese officials would say is a fake one China policy?
SACKS: Yeah, so, I mean, on the specifics of what you say, you know, the ’82 communique did talk about a reduction in arms sales. But President Reagan made clear at the same time that the overriding imperative of U.S. policy was to maintain a military balance in the Taiwan Strait. And that if it wasn’t able to do both of those things at the same time—reduce arms sales to Taiwan while maintaining a balance—then the latter would take precedence. And I think that’s what we’ve seen, because the military threat posed to Taiwan continues to grow. That is what China has pursued. And therefore, we need to take steps to ensure Taiwan can defend itself, you know, as U.S. law, the Taiwan Relations Act, makes clear.
So in terms of our one China policy as well, and you mentioned AIT, I mean, you know, the Chinese want to frame everything that we’re doing here as having a fake one China policy, but the reality is we don’t sign treaties between our governments. There are certain things that have remained consistent since 1979. We have a director to AIT, but it’s not a Senate-confirmed ambassador. Taiwan’s representative here in Washington doesn’t present his or her credentials to the president of the United States. So I think there are important differences that we should keep in mind whenever the United States is criticized for abandoning its one China policy.
And then, to your broader point about whether we agreed to disagree, I mean, I think that clearly if you look at the history of the normalization process, Taiwan was the biggest issue between the United States and the PRC. And it was something that I think we finessed successfully. We recognized we would never come to agreement on that, and we successfully finessed it now for over four decades. And so, you know, I think that where we might fall into a trap is in viewing Taiwan as a problem that we can solve. I think that’s a very American way of looking at things.
But, you know, our objective as we lay out in the report is that we should continue to seek to finesse this and push it down so that eventually there can be a peaceful resolution that the Taiwanese people are comfortable with and endorse. But I think that, to get back to the points that were made earlier, the biggest thing for us, I think, is to increase our deterrence and convince China that this is not something that they can do or that they want to pursue.
STOCKMAN: So we’re talking about trying to convince them to kick the can down the road further. As far as I can tell, the CCP, Chinese Communist Party, has always been crystal clear about its desire to get Taiwan back. They would see it as getting Taiwan back. And that would be sort of the resolution, the end of the civil war, in President Xi’s mind, I guess. They’re always going to care more about Taiwan than the average American, right? I think—I guess that would be fair to say. There are some of you up on this stage who think we should also be crystal clear. You didn’t say it in this report, but there are some of you on this stage who have advocated for strategic clarity. Is there somebody who wants to advocate for more clarity right now? (Laughter.)
MULLEN: Sue. Sue’s got it.
GORDON: So I’ll start. I’ll start. And I think actually one of the most important parts of this report is actually the study, task force’s assertion that Taiwan is a vital U.S. interest. And more, and we articulated why. And the why is a really important one. And it’s nuanced. Yes, it has security in the first island chain. Yes, it has alliances. But it also has world order. And it also has democracy. And it also has economic considerations, and not just the proximate cause of the chips but also just what it would mean for this vibrant economy to cease to perform. And so it’s that articulation of those vital interests that I think is really important.
And more, by putting it out there, the belief that this is something that has to be a discussion with the American people. Because today I don’t think there is clarity within the United States over the position that Taiwan has in terms of our national interest. And it will be consequential, everything that we do to address that. And that ought to involve a conversation with the American people. So I think that is one of the areas where we are most clear and believe that the clarity has to happen.
Then there are a number of other areas that we want to be clear with Taiwan about how they become more resilient. China, and Secretary Blinken’s visit is an important part of that, to have the ability to converse. So I think there are elements of where we want to be clear. And we’re very clear on eschewing meaningless, symbolic acts that raise the temperature, but very purposeful to ensure that the interests are addressed. So I think that’s where—when you look at this report—that’s where you should see some of the real strength of the study team.
MULLEN: I think it’s important for Harry to talk about, because he and I have disagreed on strategic clarity and strategic ambiguity for some time. But before Harry talks about that, one thing that is really clear is the—and we talk about it a little bit in the report, in terms of what’s changed in terms of context, is the—is the, you know, one country two systems piece.
And that—which used to be accepted, until a couple years ago when Hong Kong went away. And that was, and particularly the visit I had to Taiwan a year ago, March, that just jumped off the page from all those that we engaged. That really changed the calculus about possibilities because that was sort of what—that’s what Hong Kong was going to be. And there was a thought maybe we could get there with Taiwan. Not so much anymore, given what China did to clarify its future by virtue of what happened in Hong Kong.
HARRIS: Thanks. So let me back up just a little bit and tell you why I think Taiwan is important. They’re democratic. They’re an innovation nation. And they’re a global force for good. There are twenty-four million Taiwanese that want to live their lives just like you and I do. They don’t want to live in a communist system governed by a country that’s committing genocide against their own people and are—and brutalized Hong Kong to bring them under Chinese rule. So they should have something to say about that, in my opinion.
Forever? Forever hasn’t happened yet, in my book, so we need to continue to follow the law. We are a nation of laws. And our law, with regard to Taiwan, is governed by the Taiwan Relations Act. It obligates us to do certain things, including provide materiel for Taiwan’s defense—for their legitimate defensive needs—until such time that there’s a peaceful resolution across the strait of the conflict between Taiwan and the mainland.
And now the issue of strategic clarity. Yeah, so I was pleased with how the report handled the issue of strategic clarity. And that’s a testimony to David here, who wrote it, and the members of the task force, and the CFR team. Because if you read the report closely, the report doesn’t actually take a stand on strategic clarity versus strategic ambiguity. I mean, Richard Haass did in his introduction to the report, but he didn’t put his finger on the scale. He let the task force work through this issue. So I was pleased with how the issue of clarity versus ambiguity was finessed in the report.
Now, for sure, I’ve come out publicly. I am a proponent of strategic clarity. And I’ll tell you briefly why. There’s three constituents that I think that we need to be clear about with regard to what we would do if China invades Taiwan. The first constituency is the Taiwanese people, so they can then make the decision to either arm up or capitulate and join China.
The Chinese need to—need to—is the second constituency. They need to be fully cognizant of what the United States will do if they invade Taiwan. China is a country governed for the longest time—not currently, but through its history—by a one China—I mean, a one child policy, without a social safety net for their older citizens. Those older citizens are going to be orphaned if their children go to war, if China goes to war, against the United States. So they need to be fully cognizant of that, in my opinion.
But the most important constituency is the American people. Because it’s your sons and daughters who are going to fight and die for Taiwan if we go to war against China over Taiwan. Now, in the Cold War—I’m a product of the Cold War. I miss it, in some respects. (Laughter.) But as a product of the Cold War, we got it, as a nation when we were faced with the threat and the possibility of war with the Soviet Union. And we accepted that our military might have to fight either at the Fulda Gap, the GIUK Gap—Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom Gap—the whole thing. We understood that and we supported it tacitly, if not actively.
But we don’t have that same level of understanding for Taiwan because of our policy of strategic ambiguity. So I think we owe it to the American people to be clear about what our intent is with regard to Taiwan. That’s why I’m an advocate of strategic clarity. That said, I’m pleased. I did not dissent. I did not provide an additional view, quote/unquote, “an additional view” in the report, because I endorsed the report and embraced it fully for its stance on the overall issue of Taiwan and how the issue of clarity versus ambiguity was finessed in the report.
STOCKMAN: So I have so many more questions for you all, but I want to open it up to our virtual audience first for a question from the virtual audience. And then I think we’re going to have a microphone for you all, and, I’m sure, many great questions from the audience. Who can give us a virtual question?
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from David Unger.
Q: Yes. David Unger, International Institute for Strategic Studies.
This question is to Susan, who recommended that the U.S. avoid symbolic, provocative acts. Would you consider Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year such a symbolic, provocative act?
GORDON: I think one of the things that most informed that recommendation was our visit to Taiwan and talking to almost every faction of the Taiwan leadership. And asking the question of clarity versus ambiguity. And I think they were very resolute in terms of be clear with us. We are less concerned with what you say, with the small exception of if you are doing something meaningful in terms of an outcome—whether a deterrent action or a strengthening action. And so I think I think that comes from them.
I think it was certainly a symbolic act. Not being the person that decided what to do, I will probably defer on calling whether it was meaningless or not. It certainly had an effect in Taiwan. And it certainly is one of those things that can be used from a propaganda perspective on China to say what our intention really is. And so being careful about that is really what we’re advocating. Thanks, David.
STOCKMAN: There hasn’t been climate communications between the U.S. and China since then, or military-to-military communications since then, if I’m remembering correctly. All right, a question in the back.
Q: Hi. My name is James Siebens. I’m from the Stimson Center.
I wanted to ask, especially David, if you could list for us some of the actions that the United States could take that would pretty definitively exacerbate the security situation. What are the, quote/unquote, “red lines” that China holds to that the United States and China de facto outlined together in the joint communiques, that the United States cannot do without knowingly kind of breaching the accord, if you will?
SACKS: Yeah. I mean, what I would say is that, you know, clearly the United States abrogated a mutual defense treaty with the Republic of China in 1979 when it normalized relations with the PRC. And so the general guideline, I think, for the U.S. government and U.S. policymakers is that anything that looks like a reconstitution of a mutual defense treaty would be seen as inconsistent with the U.S. one China policy and could trigger a conflict.
And so you have to think about what that means in practice. I think that one of the red lines that we’ve seen—and this wasn’t explicitly stated in the report, but I think it was an assumption that we went in with—is that things like, for instance, a heavy U.S. military presence in Taiwan is something that we need to avoid. And so when we talk about inviting Taiwan to multilateral exercises or doing enhanced training with Taiwan’s military, you know, we advocate doing that in the United States and away from the island of Taiwan. I think that’s important.
But I think what—you know, what’s implicit in your question is that none—you know, this isn’t really laid out in the communiques. There isn’t a, you know, list of things we can do and we can’t do. A lot of it is based on assumptions of how we think the Chinese will respond to certain actions and, you know, private statements that they’ve made over the years. You know, there are a couple of red lines in the anti-secession law but, again, China is intentionally vague in the anti-secession law so that it gives itself, you know, maneuverability and flexibility on when to say, OK, you’ve triggered it and now we must act. And so we are dealing with a lot of different shades of gray here.
In the report, you know, we do advocate doing more to train Taiwan’s military. We call for being just as ambitious, if not more so, than what we’ve been doing with Ukraine since 2014, which really enabled Ukraine’s military to turn it around and frustrate Putin’s ambitions in 2022. We do call for increasing senior officer visits to Taiwan. As Admirals Mullen and Harris noted, you know, senior military officers from the United States do not go to Taiwan. And so you’re talking about a real, I think, disadvantage that we come to it with.
So, you know, I don’t think that we have a good answer of saying these are the five things we can do or can’t do. And there were certainly disagreements within our group on just where the line stands, and to what extent you can push the line—or, China’s attempting to push it in the other direction. But I would say that if you read the report, we do—we do conclude we need to be fairly forward-leaning in order to stop the erosion of deterrence that we see occurring in the Taiwan Strait.
STOCKMAN: Let’s do one right here. And then I’ll take a virtual question after.
Q: I’m sorry. I think you might have been pointing to someone else, but—
STOCKMAN: I was pointing at the second row here, sorry. (Laughter.)
Q: Yeah. I’ll be good.
STOCKMAN: Thank you. That’s very responsible of you.
Q: Wow, thanks. That’s the first time anybody’s given up a question. (Laughter.)
MULLEN: Wouldn’t have done that if I’d known it was you.
Q: Hi, Admiral Mullen. (Laughter.) Kevin Baron from Defense One.
So I wonder if you could tell a—tell us a more about some of your discussions about what Farah said in the beginning, the need for more weapons faster, and what Admiral Harris is saying is one of those three key constituencies, what the American people want. Because for the last five years we’ve covered a lot about the alarm bells over China and the political debate over what to think about China and therefore what to do about it, and we’re hearing quite a big difference of things to do.
So one is arm to the teeth, like Mike Gallagher is saying in his committee. But outside of the arming, and the Pentagon, and the intelligence community, the rest of the United States is also kind of being warned about China. What do you think the gaps are? Or how are the warnings being received? What do you see—where do you want to see more from areas like Wall Street, Hollywood, Disney, the NBA, you know, across American society? What else can help the cause of preventing war, other than arming to the teeth?
MULLEN: I knew there was a reason you shouldn’t have gotten that mic. (Laughter.)
Q: You’re never getting rid of me.
MULLEN: No, I know. (Laughter.) I mean, I’ll take a crack at the answer here. Part of what we really try to emphasize in the report is this just isn’t about military capability. And in fact, I would argue that that’s certainly a critical piece, but it is not dispositive overall. And that we should take as many actions as we can across the entirety of the diplomacy, intelligence, military, economic capabilities that we have and that our allies have in this particular—on this particular challenge. And I think the U.S. has great leverage on the economic side, sort of this combination of where we are in our economy. We’re very intertwined with China.
I don’t see any way we’re going to, quote/unquote, “decouple” from them, per se. Focus on the right technologies to make sure they don’t get used against us, but we’ve got great leverage there, particularly as China’s economy is struggling, and will for some time in the future. Which is a way to, I don’t want to say finesse, but certainly help address these very difficult issues. I think that’s true diplomatically. China’s very aggressive globally anytime Taiwan is given any consideration in conferences, organizations. And we need to change that calculus, quite frankly.
In addition, when you look at building them up militarily, and I get armed to the teeth, or whatever the right phrase is, we haven’t focused on Taiwan for decades. And I go back to my focus before. So we can say that, but you can’t cartoon it like it’s going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a long time to help them build up the capability. And I—you know, David brought this up. We’ve had an extraordinary impact in Ukraine based on the training. We can do that. Our allies can do that. And all of that is to focus on increasing—or, decreasing the likelihood that conflict would break out.
Because the tensions are so high—the tensions are going to go up as we do. There’s no question about that. Which gets back—or, gets me to Presidents Xi and Biden have to figure out a way to stay in touch, to make sure they guide their people and their staffs to make the case, certainly here in the United States, about Taiwan—how important Taiwan is, and that leaders sort of control the narrative sort of, you know, to make sure that this doesn’t break out into the war that would, you know, literally devastate the world.
GORDON: Let me just gently, foolishly—like, I feel like the witness in front of Congress, you know, the time ran out and I decided to say something more. (Laughter.) I don’t think we can underestimate the impact that the war in Ukraine had on the Taiwan people and on Xi’s calculus. And Taiwan isn’t Ukraine. And so thinking about that combination is part and parcel of what Mike said, is what do you need to do? Not just arm to the teeth with the same model but create the kind of will and resilience for Taiwan to be able to exert its part of this balance more effectively. So I think had Ukraine not happened, we might be having a different conversation.
But since it did, you have to look at that and say: What is the analog to that strengthening that we effected over many years, that we might be able to effect?
MULLEN: And if I could add to that, because Ukraine happened. This is a real war. We have seen gaps in our capability as a result of that. And there are real people dying. That will happen in Taiwan. Americans, Taiwanese, and others that would participate. And we need to be ready for that. We need to make sure we have the stockpiles. A real critical player in all this is Hill. And if this just gets wound up into politics as we know it right now, that will greatly limit what we’re able to do to get ready and to deter. So the Hill has a huge place to play here, particularly—and I’m fond of this, because I used to do this for a living—particularly the appropriators need to provide the money to be able to do this. That—without that, we don’t have much help of building up our own capabilities, much less theirs.
STOCKMAN: Just have to say that I was also recently in Taipei. And I saw the boxing gloves from the mayor of Kyiv hanging there in the government offices. They have, like, a whole shrine to Ukraine there. But it ain’t Ukraine. It’s an island. And you can talk to people who will say—I ask them, how many days would you last without being able to be resupplied with gas, with LNG? Eight days. They told me eight days. There is no Poland, right? There’s no land border. It’s a much—it’s a much different situation. And that—you know, that’s real.
Let’s take one more virtual question.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Daniel Mandell.
Q: Hi. Good afternoon. My name’s Daniel Mandell. I’m a recent CFR international affairs fellow in Japan, where I focused on the geopolitics in the Pacific region.
In thinking about really what was just said about—(inaudible)—Taiwan would last eight days with LNG, it raises the issue that whatever the U.S. does, whether—(off mic)—strategy or a less-aggressive strategy that aims to avoid conflict or not, it can’t do it alone. (Off mic)—Japan, Australia—
STOCKMAN: Daniel, you’re going in and out. Can you make sure you’re speaking directly into your microphone so we can hear you?
Q: Sorry. I’m also under a thunderstorm, so there may be some—
STOCKMAN: Ah. (Laughter.) Act of God here.
Q: Yeah. So I was saying that whatever we do, we’re not going to be able to do it alone. We are going to need our partners and our allies, whether it’s directly in the region with Japan, and Australia, and South Korea, or if it’s economic issues we’re going to need Europe. So did the task force consider at all the need for what would be multilateral action, the need for Australia, Japan, Europe, and others to work with or support U.S. action in deciding what the U.S. strategy should be? If not, maybe you take the opportunity now to think about how should our need to rely on others influence what our strategy should be towards the Taiwan issue?
SACKS: Yeah. I mean, we note in the report that our network of allies and partners is our number-one asymmetric advantage vis-à-vis China. And as regards the Europeans, I think we’re realistic that, number one, they likely would not support militarily or even have necessarily the capacity to do so. But what we can do is have very serious conversations with our European allies about sanctions, and put together sanctions that we think would bolster deterrence and potentially even preview those to the Chinese to convince Xi Jinping that the economic costs would be enormous and not something that he wants to bear.
And as it regards, you know, Asia we took note of, I think, really positive steps just this year, whether it’s, you know, new pledges from Japan about U.S.-Japanese operations—exercises in Japan’s southwest islands, whether it’s reform for our force posture in Japan. Obviously, we took note of AUKUS as well as the new EDCA sites in the U.S.-Philippine relationship. So I think this is moving in the right direction. And what really has changed is that these countries are making their own sovereign decision about the threat that China poses to their security, and what the region would look like the day after a Chinese annexation of Taiwan.
And so, yes, we call for doing a lot more to strengthen our coordination and cooperation with allies, above all Japan. And I think that there is a growing appetite on their part. I don’t think that this is something that we’re trying to force them to do. I think that there’s an openness now in Tokyo, in Manilla, as well as elsewhere in the region to really think and talk about uncomfortable questions that they had wanted to avoid for decades. So this is absolutely part of the strategy and something that we focused a lot on in the report.
STOCKMAN: OK. Let’s do the front row here.
Q: Thank you. Wenchi Yu from Harvard Kennedy School.
So we know Taiwan has a presidential election that’s coming up in January. So out of the three candidates, two are actually from the opposition, are actually likely to advocate for a different approach than the current ruling party, which is they would be more open to having a dialogue with Beijing and maybe dial down in building up Taiwan’s defense. So in the case that when Taiwan’s ruling party is going to have a different attitude, whether it’s towards China or even with the U.S., what does Washington, D.C. do?
SACKS: Well, I think that, you know, the United States does not oppose cross-strait dialogue. It is something that we consistently advocate for. And the problem with the last seven years or so has been that Beijing refuses to talk to Taiwan’s democratically elected leader.
Q: It’s less about dialogue, but the military strengthening for Taiwan’s defense. Because the other two candidates may be saying we would have more—less of this kind of military buildup.
MULLEN: Well, going there, which as I did a year ago, March, I mean, it’s clear—and, obviously, I’m with the elected politicians—the politics there hits you pretty fast. And at the same time, the Taiwanese people are going to make their selection. And to me, at this point—I mean, it’s a very complex situation and choice. But that is for the Taiwanese people to decide. And we will move forward accordingly, you know, based on what their leadership wants to do over time.
I think it’s a little early to say we would do this or we won’t do that, at this—or something else, at this particular point in time. Nor should we, under any circumstance, advocate for an outcome that would be, you know, try to precede that election. We need to recognize it’s going on. It’s serious. It’ll have an impact one way or the other. And we need to essentially be ready to address the issues that are associated with that, you know, after the election.
STOCKMAN: Just to push you on that, though, in the report it talks about Taiwan—part of the vital importance is that it helps us defend our treaty allies. So should the Taiwanese people decide some day in the future—I didn’t, by the way, get any indication that the people of Taiwan wanted anything to do with Chinese Communist rule. But should they in the future at some point decide to move closer to China and to ratchet down their defense, how does that—how does that intersect with the idea that we need it to defend our treaty allies?
HARRIS: Well, it comports with our law, right? I mean, that’s what the Taiwan Relations Act says. We advocate—we advocate peaceful reunification across the strait. And if that’s what the Taiwanese want to do, we support that by our law.
STOCKMAN: So we’ll find another way to defend our treaty allies.
HARRIS: Should it come to that.
GORDON: And then we do what we do. It sounds simplistic, which is then you figure out with that condition, choice made, of how we address our interests in the region.
MULLEN: And the other thing is we’ve been through this with several different administrations in Taiwan, from both sides of the aisle, over time. So it’s not completely new ground, even though it would be new players, and we clearly have a different leader now in China.
STOCKMAN: Actually, I feel like I should give this gentleman—(laughs)—he actually gave up his question, a chance.
Q: I appreciate it. Thank you. My name is Patrick Centeno. I’m a fellow from the Indonesian Flagship Language Initiative.
So while we’re still on the topic of, I would say, partners and allies, we’ve been focusing on Japan, Australia, also Europe. But how important is it in this day and age to focus on our partnerships in Southeast Asia? I know we have the Philippines as our allies, but I find other nations there very important. They’re close in proximity. So how important is it for us to, I would say, strengthen our partnerships, maybe make new treaty allies there in order to defend Taiwan, if that question were to come up later? I think it’s very important. I would like to see what your thoughts are on this.
HARRIS: Yeah, so I’ll start in response to your excellent question. So our partners in Southeast Asia are critical to the United States. And I believe the reverse is true as well. We are critical to our partners in Southeast Asia. The only exception to the partner rule would be the Philippines. We are a treaty ally of the Philippines. But we are a close security partner and economic partner with most of the rest of the nations in ASEAN.
That said, it is on us, the United States, for not—for taking five years to put an ambassador in Singapore, to put an ambassador in ASEAN. So I came to diplomacy late in my life, but I am a firm believer that diplomats and diplomacy matter. So it’s on us when we don’t get an ambassador into ASEAN, into Singapore, it takes two years to get an ambassador to take my place in South Korea. They traded up for sure, but it shouldn’t take two years to do that. (Laughter.) You know, it took us a year to get an ambassador to Australia, a treaty ally, after she was nominated. You know, that’s on—that’s on us.
And part of that is on our broken political system in Washington. I called it in November of 2021 legislative malpractice. But you cannot blame the Senate if the White House doesn’t nominate people in time. So it’s on both parties, and it’s on us as Americans to put diplomats in diplomatic postings overseas. So our nation’s—our allies, friends and partners look at that. But not only them, but our adversaries and competitors look at that. And they try their best to fill the vacuum that’s left when you have an important country, like Singapore for example, that doesn’t have an ambassador. Thankfully, Singapore, ASEAN, and the other countries in Southeast Asia and in Asia have ambassadors now. But they shouldn’t have to wait two, three, four, five years for that to happen.
STOCKMAN: Man, we have two clocks in this room—three clocks—and they all say different times. (Laughter.) So how much time do I have left? Three minutes. Let’s take one question, quick question from the front, and then I want to close it out.
Q: Hi. I’m Jan Lodal. Just a quick question.
My view, from having worked on it years ago, is that if push came to shove and it looked like the PRC was going to take over, the real question in everybody’s mind is what are we going to do, and are we going to
respond, and are we going to not respond? So do any of you have any final words on what we could do to make it more clear that we are committed to responding? And of course, we need to build up the Taiwanese as much as possible, but isn’t that really the ultimate determinant here of whether we can keep this policy in place?
MULLEN: I mean, I’ve listened to our current president on four separate occasions. And while it’s always been pulled back by the staff afterwards, it’s pretty clear to me. That’s how I read it.
HARRIS: I’m with Admiral Mullen on that. President Biden has been crystal clear when asked the question, will we defend Taiwan? He has said: Yes. It has been walked back by people that are either unelected or unconfirmed by the Senate, or both. But at the end of the day, the president has said, yes, we will defend Taiwan. And as the report gets into it, at the end of the day whoever the next president is, President Biden has set a standard—has set a place, if you will, on the question of whether the United States will defend Taiwan or not. So as the report emphasizes, we believe you can’t walk that back to zero. You can walk it back to where President Biden is around there, and then go from that point. But he has set a new starting point for the question of whether the United States will defend Taiwan.
Q: Have we communicated that well enough to the Chinese?
HARRIS: I don’t know. If they speak English or get it translated, President Biden has said four times—the commander-in-chief has said four times we will defend Taiwan.
MULLEN: I think we’re going to wrap up here. I just want to take a minute. This is the second task force that I’ve participated on. I did one on Korea—North Korea a few years ago. And it’s one of many, many task forces. And so I just want to single out Anya Schmemann, who ran this. She was the executive director. And she also ran the one I did several years ago. And, Anya, your leadership has been extraordinary, and we really do appreciate that. Also, to David Sacks. One of the things that CFR clearly has is people who can write, and David is one of them, who is also very deep on the issues. So, to David, Connor, Chelie and others on the team, you know, it really—it’s really made it easy. This is a complex issue, as I said. And I do hope an awful lot of people will read and then tell others to read this.
And then lastly, just because I have the mic for a minute, I’d like to say thanks to Richard Haass. This is his last task force, I think. He leaves at the end of the month. To say thanks for his leadership over twenty-plus years of his life, a significant portion of his life, focusing on the key issues of our time, in many ways. And his contributions have been enormous. And certainly we wish him the best in whatever the next chapter is. But we’re very grateful that he took this task on and led so well. Thanks.
STOCKMAN: Well, with that I think we are going to adjourn on time. I just want to say that this report is worth reading every page, because it’s such a complex issue. On the one hand, you have this question of protecting a vibrant democracy, upholding the world order, and on the other hand this very serious issue of a possible world conflict. And all of us have been in this room for Iraq and Afghanistan, which were wars that didn’t go as many predicted. And so it’s sobering to read the report and to look at it in that context, and wrestle with this idea of a world order that we have been at the center of for so long that President Xi has said our time is coming. And so, I mean, on my mind, I really wonder how much—how much of this is about protecting ourselves and our influence in the world versus our allies and the safety of a democracy in Asia. So that’s what—I just want to leave people with that. The report gives a lot to think about. And hopefully we’ll be together in this room again. Thanks. (Applause.)