U.S. Forces Must Not Let China 'Dictate the Terms' in the Pacific: Admiral

Adm. Philip Davidson, the former commander of American forces in the Pacific, said the United States must maintain its military capabilities to prevent China from "dictating the terms" of the region's future.

Davidson, who led U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) out of Hawaii for three years until April 2021, testified in Congress last year that he believed a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could happen by 2027. The "Davidson Window," as it became known, has been the subject of constant debate ever since.

The former top uniformed official for the Pacific told The Asia Group's The Tea Leaves Podcast on Wednesday that Beijing has a "very long view" of its vision for the region. China's rapidly expanding hard power capabilities and its projection into the Western Pacific are just some of the "strategic signs," he argues.

"They've articulated pretty well over the last couple of years their 100-year trajectory," Davidson said. "As they point towards 2049, they've made clear that their long-term design is to displace the international order and replace it with what they call Chinese characterises, but which I believe is more accurately described as the party's characteristics."

The mid-century target set by President Xi Jinping marks the centennial of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Xi, who oversaw the Chinese Communist Party's 100-year celebrations last summer, wants to make a world-class fighting force out of his country's military, the People's Liberation Army, which marks its 100 years in 2027.

Navy Adm. Philip Davidson
Adm. Philip Davidson testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on April 17, 2018. Before stepping down as head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in April 2021, Davidson testified to his belief that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could happen by 2027. AP/Carolyn Kaster

"One need only to look at what that closed and the authoritarian regime, led by Chairman Xi, is doing in China...to be concerned about the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific," Davidson said. A consistent U.S. presence in the region will be vital, the admiral added.

"If we don't engage economically; if we don't engage diplomatically. If we don't have the kind of military capability that we need in the region to help delivery on a free and open Indo-Pacific, then the People's Republic of China will dictate the terms to the other nations in the region," he said.

"I think that would be to the detriment of U.S. prosperity and security during the course of the next several decades."

Eyes on Taiwan

Whether China moves on Taiwan during the Davidson Window will come down to more than just the PLA's capabilities. Even if Beijing believes it's militarily prepared, such an ambitious campaign would inevitably involve extensive political calculations, including on the probability that Taipei could be coerced into accepting a political settlement in its favor.

By and large, former and current officials agree with Davidson's assessment of the threat as pressing. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines believes China aims to take Taiwan over American intervention by the end of the decade. Adm. John Aquilino, Davidson's successor at USINDOPACOM, argues that a Taiwan crisis would undermine U.S. credibility among allies in Asia.

During his recent trip to South Korea and Japan, President Joe Biden expressed his intention to respond militarily if China were to invade its neighbor under his watch, despite the longstanding U.S. policy not to explicitly say so.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, Washington has provided Taipei with the weapons and services it requires to maintain a credible self-defense capability. "Our defense relationship with Taiwan continues to be commensurate with the threat we assess it faces from the PRC," the State Department told Newsweek in April.

Part of this, Davidson confirmed, involves training for Taiwan's armed forces and oversight of the island's annual Han Kuang war games. The Pentagon is also working with Taipei's defense establishment to develop asymmetric warfighting capabilities, but Davidson cautions against an overreliance on the singular doctrine.

On paper, China outstrips Taiwan's defense spending by about 15 times; in reality, the gap is likely much wider.

U.S. defense planners believe the acquisition of cheaper and more mobile weapons systems, like the ones Ukraine is using to great effect against Russia, could help impose a higher cost on Chinese forces during a conflict by turning Taiwan into a "porcupine."

Davidson doesn't argue against asymmetric warfare for Taiwan but suggests it's incomplete. "You have to be able to deter with conventional capability as well. I think the porcupine theory is actually a subset of what we need to do when we talk about deterring to deny or prevent, and being able to actually impose cost once an invasion begins."

"You can't solely have systems that have utility after the attack begins. You have to have some capability that causes the political leadership of your potential adversary pause," he said. "You want to see the array of capabilities in the battlespace...that would prevent that potential adversary from actually going in the first place."

Davidson says Taiwan needs "the full portfolio of capability"—to include more expensive aircraft, warships and submarines—in order to deal with China's grey zone or hybrid actions, military maneuvers around Taiwan that fall short of war, but which nonetheless exhaust Taipei's personnel and equipment.

Taiwan's Tsai Ing-wen Holds Rocket Launcher
President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan holds an indigenously developed Kestrel anti-tank rocket launcher during an inspection of a marine corps base in Taoyuan on June 2, 2022. Kestrel rockets are among the asymmetric weapons systems Taiwan has been encouraged to field as part of its deterrent against a Chinese invasion. Chien Chih-Hung/Office of the President, Taiwan