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New report details the current state of U.S.-Taiwan relations

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has wrapped up his visit to China, where he met with President Xi Jinping and other government officials. Among the matters discussed was the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own. In a press conference on Monday, Blinken said he raised concerns about China's actions in the Taiwan Strait, but he reiterated that U.S. policy had not changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: We do not support Taiwan independence. We remain opposed to any unilateral changes to the status quo by either side. We continue to expect the peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences.

CHANG: That status quo is under increasing strain, according to a report from the bipartisan Independent Task Force on Taiwan from the Council on Foreign Relations. The report is out today, and it emphasizes that the U.S. should take action now to deter future aggression from the Chinese government towards Taiwan. I spoke with two members of the task force, former Deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon and Admiral Mike Mullen, formerly the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And I asked them, given the fact that Taiwan has dealt with the threat of a more aggressive China for several years now, what is it about this moment in particular that feels more urgent?

SUSAN GORDON: I think there are probably three things that particularly are front of mind. One is just China's actions in the region that are aggressive - not just relating to Taiwan but in the South China Sea - and, coupled with that, a general expansion in military capabilities. So that's one. Two is Xi Jinping's statements on this topic that's cited as something that he believes is unresolved and even putting timeframes on which reunification should happen. And then I think the third thing is what I'll call provocative actions specifically in the Strait of Taiwan that could be taken as coercive action to undermine the will of the Taiwan people to have a different view of what their position should be. So I think those are three that just really come to mind.

CHANG: Right. You mentioned time frames that Xi Jinping has declared about possible reunification. With Taiwan when it comes to China's possible reunification by force with Taiwan, what conditions do you think have to be in place before Xi would decide to go through with that?

MIKE MULLEN: I really believe that, actually, this isn't just Xi Jinping. I think any Chinese leader, if they believe that Taiwan was going to become independent - and then Xi Jinping himself - he's been very specific when he tells his military to be ready by 2027, when he says that it's critical to what he calls this national rejuvenation and that it can't be passed on from leader to leader, as has been the case in the past.

CHANG: How much do we know about whether the war in Ukraine is giving Xi Jinping any pause about invading or taking Taiwan one day? Do you think it is?

GORDON: I have to believe that seeing how much more difficult this has been for Putin has to give Xi pause in terms of how prepared he would be for any forcible military action on the island. And Taiwan is not a simple military target.

MULLEN: In fact, it's an incredibly complex - some believe the most complex kind of military operation that he would have to actually execute in order to successfully take Taiwan.

CHANG: Do you think the U.S. should come to Taiwan's direct defense should China invade Taiwan one day?

MULLEN: I'm - that's a decision for the president, actually.

CHANG: Well, how would you advise the president if you were in the position to do so on that question?

MULLEN: You know, I actually only did that when I was in a position to do that. Clearly, his advisers are backing off. What President Biden has said on four separate occasions seemed to indicate that he would. His staff has then backed those...

CHANG: Back away.

MULLEN: ...Words down after each one. What we're trying to say in this report is we support the One China policy. Peaceful reunification is still the goal. We just need to make sure, you know, we don't reunify under conflict.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about the One China policy. This policy, which the U.S. adheres to, recognizes the People's Republic of China as the sole legal government of China and Taiwan as part of China. The policy - it requires what's called strategic ambiguity. But let me ask you, is strategic ambiguity sustainable in the long term, or do you think the U.S. needs to land on a policy of strategic clarity? Sue, what do you think?

GORDON: We backed away from coming down hard one way or another, instead staying with the One China policy. But here's where I think we did come in terms of area of clarity that is needed. We need to be clear as a nation what our interests are with Taiwan, and we need to have that conversation with the American people. We need to be clear with Taiwan about the actions we're taking with them so that they are more resilient, whether that is more weapons or more training. And I think we need to be clear with China that we have not changed the point that we have an opinion about reunification or not but rather on the point of peaceful. And so if you look through the report, we may not have taken on your question of strategic ambiguity or clarity but rather clarity in specific areas that advance our interests and make it clear that China does not influence what our interests are.

CHANG: Well, one of the biggest takeaways from your report is that you advise that the U.S. should more proactively build up Taiwan's self-defense capabilities. But let me ask you, wouldn't that inherently provoke China?

MULLEN: I mean, we find ourselves at a time - first of all, the overall relationship is in the worst shape it's been since 1979. And the tensions are way up. That said, at a time when these tensions are way up, it becomes that much more difficult to raise our own capabilities, if you will, because that will increase tensions. And I think that's what we have to do to create the kind of deterrence that has eroded over time. And so that's a necessary step.

CHANG: Even if China sees that as provocative.

MULLEN: I think people will say that. I think it's the risk that you have to take. The other is to look at it and sort of walk away and let it happen, and I just don't think that's a realistic possibility.

CHANG: But that, I guess, returns me to the previous question. Is the One China policy ultimately sustainable? Are these gestures to be indefinitely quiet on the part of the U.S. towards Taiwan?

GORDON: So I think time will tell, but I think the One China policy is consistent with letting Taiwan and China decide how they want to resolve it. And that's standing by basically our view of what is allowable in terms of hostile actions. And also, you know, you led with Blinken's visit. I think more of those things - harder-working diplomacy, more connections and more people-to-people visit - so it's not just seen as a military buildup, although that is always part of deterrence. There are other pieces of it that we think also needed to be strengthened and in which you can be clear about what our interests are in the region without directly being in confrontation to China.

CHANG: That was former deputy Director of National Intelligence Sue Gordon and Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They're both a part of the Council on Foreign Relations Taiwan Task Force. Thank you both so much for this really interesting conversation.

MULLEN: Thank you.

GORDON: Thanks, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE SONG, "FAREWELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.