A move by the Chinese military which has long-threatened to destabilise Australia's region could come sooner than feared.
The threat from the Chinese communist Party to invade Taiwan is serious and more imminent than many understand, according to the US admiral chosen to lead the Pentagon's Indo-Pacific region.
Speaking to the US Senate on Tuesday (local time), he said China considers reclaiming Taiwan its "number-one priority" and argued when it comes to taking control of the democratic nation of 24 million people, "the rejuvenation of the Chinese Communist Party is at stake".
China's repeated threats to reclaim Taiwan by force have turned the Taiwan Strait into a global flashpoint with observers warning of the potential for conflict to erupt.
Suggestion China could make move 'after hosting Olympics'
Admiral Aquilino told the Senate Armed Services Committee considering his nomination, that he disagreed with his predecessor's estimations on when such a conflict might unfold.
Outgoing commander Admiral Philip Davidson's recently told US senators that China could attempt to attack and take over Taiwan as soon as six years from now.
"My opinion is that this problem is much closer to us than most think, and we have to take this on," Aquilino said.
Speculating on a potential scenario during the committee hearing, Hawkish Republican senator Tom Cotton drew parallels with Russia's military take over of Crimea in the days after hosting the Winter Olympics in 2014, suggesting China could do a similar thing after hosting the 2022 winter games.
Aquilino declined to comment on the suggestion by Senator Cotton that China could attack Taiwan as early as next year.
Warning over China's weapons stockpile
Aquilino said the threat was such that the United States needs to implement a proposed US$27 billion ($35 billion) plan to boost US defences in the region "in the near term and with urgency".
"The Chinese Communist Party has generated some capabilities in the region that are designed to keep us out," he said. "The most dangerous concern is that of a military force against Taiwan."
He said the Chinese leader's promise not to militarise islands in the South China Sea was "false".
"We have to not just listen to words, to look at words but at deeds... All of those islands have been militarised," he said.
He added that China was increasing its stockpile of nuclear warheads "faster than anyone previously believed."
Australia warned over prospect of conflict
Democratic and self-ruled Taiwan split from China at the end of a civil war in 1949, and is a long-time US ally. But Beijing has always maintained its claim of sovereignty over the island.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has not ruled out the use of force to subdue Taiwan, a prospect that has the potential to push the US and its allies into heated conflict.
“The prospect of conflict is alive and well over Taiwan,” Professor John Blaxland from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific told Yahoo News Australia in August.
He sees China’s continued assertion that it will reclaim the country as a “wild card” issue that could see Australia dragged into conflict in the years ahead.
The Australian Defence Department was warned last year that Xi Jinping’s government was “highly likely” to attempt to take over Taiwan using “all means short of war” as it continues to adopt usual tactics of intimidation against its stated target.
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