- The Washington Times
Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The commander of the world’s largest naval force component says there should be no ambiguity about the operational capabilities of the U.S. Navy’s warships and other naval forces to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack.

Adm. Sam “Pappy” Paparo, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander, said in an interview with The Washington Times that his forces are ready to defend Taiwan from a Chinese military move.

The prospect appears increasingly likely under the aggressive policies of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Asked about comments from Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday that China appears to be narrowing its timetable for taking action against Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its sovereign territory, Adm. Paparo said: “This is a decade of concern, so I absolutely see the logic of in the secretary’s discussion.”

Recent Chinese military efforts and drills in preparation for a Taiwan invasion or other military action can be seen as “rehearsals” of the People’s Liberation Army, he said.

On the potential for a conflict with China in the Taiwan Strait, Adm. Paparo said: “The first thing I will say is, we’re ready today. We’ll be ready tomorrow. We’ll be ready next week and next year. There’s not a single day that we’re not going to be working to get readier.”

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U.S. policy since the 1970s recognizes that there is a single China but says differences over Taiwan’s sovereignty and its relationship to the mainland must not be resolved by force, he said.

The four-star admiral said he could offer “no opinion on the policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’” regarding how the U.S. military would respond to a Chinese move against Taiwan.

“But,” he added, “what I can offer you is operational clarity.”

Under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, he said, “I’m required to have the capability to thwart any invasion of Taiwan, any effort to resolve the matter by force, and on that, there is no ambiguity. There is just perfect clarity that I’m confident in our ability to do that with our joint capabilities that are capable of deploying quickly to the point where they are operating dynamically in the battlespace and imposing intolerable costs to an adversary.”

The U.S. enacted the law to support Taiwan after the Carter administration switched formal diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The Taiwan Relations Act states that U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic of China was preconditioned on the future of Taiwan, now a thriving island democracy of nearly 24 million people, being settled by “peaceful means.” The law also states that it is U.S. policy “to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion” that endangers the security, social and economic system of the people of Taiwan.

Ambiguous ambiguity

“Strategic ambiguity” is not a formal U.S. policy. It was first discussed in congressional testimony by a Pentagon official in 1995.

President Biden has called the policy into question. In September, he said the United States would send military forces to defend Taiwan in the case of an “unprecedented attack” by China.

It was the fourth time the president made the statement. After each mention, the White House insisted that the comments did not represent a change in long-standing U.S. policy. Still, the president’s repeated statements have led to official protests from Beijing and widespread perceptions that the strategic ambiguity approach is a thing of the past.

Chinese leaders accuse the Biden administration of trying to change the status quo regarding Taiwan and have repeatedly stated that the use of force against Taiwan remains an option.

On Sunday, Mr. Xi said efforts to take control of Taiwan, which split from the mainland during a civil war in 1949, was one of the Chinese Communist Party’s highest priorities.

Although China has built up its navy and strategic forces under Mr. Xi, Adm. Paparo said in the interview that the People’s Liberation Army has several major weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

“One, they have no friends. No allies and partners,” he said.

Beijing has a “passing friendship” with Russia that is limited in scope and ties to North Korea that are not strong.

“Their second weakness is a lack of experience in the combat areas that would be required for them to gain the advantages,” Adm. Paparo said.

“But on that front, they are working their way through that,” he said, “and they’re attempting to learn and grow in those capabilities.”

Finally, he said, China has a more profound weakness: “the utter absurdity and weakness of their cause in their malign intentions.”

Big job

The commander leads the world’s largest fleet command, covering 100 million square miles of territory from the West Coast of the United States to the Indian Ocean.

His command includes about 200 ships and submarines, nearly 1,200 aircraft and more than 130,000 sailors and civilians. The fleet is under the administrative control of the Navy’s chief of naval operations and operationally is under the Hawaii-based Indo-Pacific Command.

Its legendary commanders include Adm. Chester Nimitz and Adm. Raymond Spruance.

Adm. Paparo, a Navy pilot by training, said the Chinese military’s drive to develop war-fighting experience has prompted him to increase joint fighting efforts for U.S. forces.

The Pacific Fleet recently augmented its two numbered fleets, the 7th Fleet and 3rd Fleet, with Fleet Information Warfare Command-Pacific. The unit is designed to oversee information warfare, including cyberattacks and strategic messaging. The new command coordinates communications and messaging with the Indo-Pacific Command and the office of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Once again, a main target of the initiative is China.

The information warfare center is “always working toward characterizing [China’s] ability to see, understand, decide and act in the battlespace, and we’re ready to frustrate their ability to do those things,” Adm. Paparo said.

He said the new information battlefield and the struggle between competing value systems are increasingly important.

“I have faith in the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific, in the principles of sovereignty, of human dignity, human rights, self-determination, freedom of the seas, freedom of the skies, freedom in space,” he said. “I have absolute belief in that. I have absolute belief in the values of the allies and partners, and those values in and of themselves are an info op.”

“In our adversaries,” he said, “it’s usually the converse.”

The commitment to democratic openness and a free, sometimes critical press may have short-term disadvantages in the information wars, the admiral said, but in the long term, “our principles of being truthful and authentic, and our long-term principles of freedom of the press will prevail because people are smart.”

Leveraging the tech advantage

Within the U.S. military, the Pacific Fleet is known as a joint task force that must be ready to conduct operations in both kinetic and non-kinetic combat scenarios. As part of a broader Pentagon strategy, the Pacific Fleet, like other military components, plans to leverage high-technology advances in weapons and other capabilities, the commander said.

Key areas include electronic warfare to counter command and control communications, intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance while protecting Navy command and control.

The Navy also is developing “long-range fires” — advanced strike weapons, and improved abilities to “maneuver dynamically in that environment,” Adm. Paparo said.

Another key area will be improvements in the fleet’s ability to execute precise and timely logistics, he said.

Earlier, during a speech at a conference on information operations, Adm. Paparo said the use of information tools is “first, middle and last” in the effort to prevent war and deter adversaries. The military, in combination with allies and partners, aims to respect the rule of law and international norms while championing freedom, rights and liberties.

Deterring China, as well as hostile powers such as Russia and North Korea, means opposing “expansionism and seizure of land, seas, nutrients and mineral resources by coercion and/or military actions,” Adm. Paparo said.

The People’s Republic of China, he said, is seeking to gain global hegemony through the use of innocuous-sounding phrases like promotion of “common prosperity.”

“This is the system where the PRC is the center and ‘all affairs under heaven’ are determined through their autocracy,” Adm. Paparo said. “Not the rule of law is what we see in the PRC, but it is the ‘rule by law.’”

Adm. Paparo rejected Mr. Xi’s claim that China’s drive for global power is about “national rejuvenation.”

“Let’s be clear about what rejuvenation means,” he said. “National rejuvenation means the party control of economies. It means military modernization to support the above, and it means the armed changing of international borders by force.”

The U.S. and its allies are seeking to block Chinese ambitions on a series of fronts: military expansion in the South China Sea, coercion and pressure against Taiwan and Japan’s Senkaku Islands, pressure on India’s border region, and repression of freedoms and liberties in Hong Kong, he said.

“This is not about containing PRC economic and military growth,” he said. “It’s about ensuring that we as a free and sovereign nation ensure their actions, behaviors do not disrupt the peace and stability of the region, or the international rules-based order which … has lifted 60% of the world out of poverty and lifts 160,000 human beings out of poverty each and every single day.”

Adm. Paparo is the second senior Pacific Fleet officer to warn of the growing danger of a military conflict over Taiwan.

In September, Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of the Navy’s 7th Fleet, said China’s navy has grown large enough to blockade Taiwan.

Adm. Thomas said he does not know whether China will use its military against Taiwan but said U.S. forces must be ready. He urged that differences be settled peacefully.

“Clearly, if they do something that’s non-kinetic, which, you know, a blockade is less kinetic, then that allows the international community to weigh in and to work together on how we’re going to solve that challenge,” Adm. Thomas told The Wall Street Journal in September.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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