RYO NAKAMURA, Nikkei staff writer
WASHINGTON — China may consider military action on Taiwan by the next U.S. presidential election in 2024, former U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien recently told Nikkei, raising the alarm over the growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait.
O’Brien predicted that China will not do anything to jeopardize the Beijing Olympics in February. But Beijing worries that former President Donald Trump or a China hawk like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will win the White House in 2024, he said in a virtual interview.
“That window between the Olympics and the next presidential election could be a window that President Xi believes that he has an opportunity to create mischief when it comes to Taiwan,” said O’Brien, who served as the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs under Trump and became national security adviser in September 2019.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly described Taiwan as a “core interest,” calling for its unification with the mainland. And since summer, U.S. President Joe Biden has on two occasions appeared to suggest that America would defend Taiwan from an attack by China — seeming to break with Washington’s long-held “strategic ambiguity.”
The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 says the U.S. “will make available to Taiwan such defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” But it does not explicitly commit the U.S. to the island’s defense. The White House has walked back both of Biden’s comments.
O’Brien suggested that Biden may have intentionally been trying to throw China off and dispel a belief in Beijing that he would be soft on an invasion against Taiwan.
“One time, maybe you’d say, ‘Maybe he misspoke,'” O’Brien said. “But he’s now said it twice, and so he seems to have a plan, and he seems to be attempting to sow some doubt among the Chinese leadership.”
O’Brien also suggested that the Biden administration may be reacting to intelligence regarding China’s strategy on Taiwan. “They may be very concerned about what China’s planning, and that could be the reason for President Biden’s statement,” he said.
“I think it’s very important that the allies, that Japan, the United States, India, U.K., the European Union, make it very clear to China that the consequences of an invasion of Taiwan would be very severe,” O’Brien said. “Not just militarily but also economically, for the people.”
He stressed that Japan has a particularly strong reason to support peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
“If China and the Communist Party get ahold of Taiwan, that splits Japan from the rest of the Pacific, all the countries south — Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines,” and the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he said. “Japan is cut off from all of those countries by the geopolitical rock that’s Taiwan.”
Taiwan would give the Chinese military a strong foothold for Pacific operations beyond the so-called first island chain, which extends through Japan’s Okinawa islands to the Philippines, which in turn could cut off key trade routes for Japan.
O’Brien encouraged businesses to also prepare for a potential crisis in the Taiwan Strait and the resulting sanctions against China. Small and midsize companies doing business in China “need to have plans, a) on how to diversify their supply chain or how to diversify their customer base, and b) what would happen if there was a contingency,” he said.
Overall, he said members of the Biden administration are doing a “good job” on China policy. But he cautioned the U.S. against allowing China to exploit their bilateral cooperation on climate change without taking concrete action.
“They can make empty promises on climate change to obtain advantages on trade, or Taiwan, or other areas. So we need to be careful about that,” he said.
On the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, O’Brien said that “in principle, the idea of a TPP is a very good idea.”
“The idea of having a trading bloc that believes in the rule of law, that believes in free trade, and is a counterbalance to the PRC and the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, is a good idea,” he said, using China’s official initials and an earlier name for the Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative.
He warned that accepting China’s bid for membership would undermine the framework. “I think bringing them into TPP would probably destroy the whole reason for, the raison d’etre for, TPP, which is to have a free and open trading system with the rule of law and fairness,” O’Brien said.
He was cautious toward the idea of the U.S. rejoining the framework, which Trump withdrew from on his first day in office. The U.S. needs to “make sure it’s an agreement that works well for American workers and American families, as well as other countries” to be involved again, he said.
Since stepping down as national security adviser, O’Brien has launched geopolitical consulting firm American Global Securities. The company partnered in October with Kitamura Economic Security, founded by former Japanese national security adviser Shigeru Kitamura.