The Pentagon’s top China official is to visit Taiwan in the coming days, a rare trip to the island by a senior US defence policymaker that comes as relations between Washington and Beijing are mired in crisis over a suspected Chinese spy balloon shot down two weeks ago.
Michael Chase, deputy assistant secretary of defence for China, will go to Taiwan in the coming days, according to four people familiar with his trip. He is currently in Mongolia for discussions with the country’s military.
Chase would be the first senior defence official to visit Taiwan since Heino Klinck, deputy assistant secretary for east Asia, went in 2019. At the time, he was the most senior Pentagon official to visit the island in four decades.
The visit comes as US-China relations have sunk to a new low after the Chinese military flew a large balloon over North America for eight days until an F-22 shot it down off the coast of South Carolina.
China says the balloon was a civilian craft doing meteorological research, but the US insists it was being used to conduct surveillance over sensitive military sites, including nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile silos in Montana.
President Joe Biden on Thursday said he planned to talk to his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to “get to the bottom” of the balloon incident, which has sparked calls in Congress for the US to take an even tougher line on Beijing.
The Pentagon declined to comment on the trip to Taiwan. But it stressed that US “support for, and defence relationship with, Taiwan remains aligned against the current threat posed by the People’s Republic of China”.
“Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region,” added the Pentagon spokesperson, Lieutenant Colonel Martin Meiners.
The planned visit comes at a sensitive moment in relations between Washington and Beijing. US secretary of state Antony Blinken is trying to meet Wang Yi, the top Chinese foreign policy official, at the Munich security conference this weekend. But two people familiar with the talks said Wang had not yet agreed to such a meeting. The state department declined to comment.
Three weeks ago, Blinken cancelled a planned trip to China at short notice because of the balloon incident. He had been scheduled to meet Xi.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing also remain high over Taiwan. A top American Air Force general recently said he believed the US and China would likely go to war over Taiwan in 2025. The Pentagon moved quickly to say that his comments did not reflect the official view.
Beijing opposes visits to Taipei by US officials or lawmakers. Last August, the Chinese military held large-scale military exercises, including flying ballistic missiles over Taiwan, after Nancy Pelosi became the first Speaker of the US House of Representatives to visit the island in 25 years.
Beijing argues that visits to Taiwan, over which it claims sovereignty, dilute Washington’s “one China” policy. Under the policy, which has been in place since the US and China established relations in 1979, Washington recognises Beijing as the sole government of China and acknowledges, without endorsing, the Chinese view that Taiwan is part of China.
While the Biden administration has avoided overtly antagonising China with official visits, at least one senior military official has visited Taiwan.
Last year the Financial Times reported that Admiral Michael Studeman, then the top intelligence officer at Indo-Pacific command, visited Taipei. His trip came around the time Chinese and Russian strategic bombers flew a joint mission over the Sea of Japan while Biden was on a trip to Tokyo.
The Biden administration insists US policy towards Taiwan has not changed. But the president has on four occasions said the US military would intervene if China attacked Taiwan.
His remarks appeared to shift the longstanding US policy of “strategic ambiguity” under which Washington refuses to say if it would intervene in a conflict. It was designed to make Taiwan less likely to declare independence — which would almost certainly trigger a Chinese attack — while making Beijing think twice about any military action against the country.
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