US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John Aquilino inspects US marines stationed in Darwin. Australia
US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral John Aquilino inspects US marines stationed in Darwin. In his first trip to Australia since assuming the role, Aquilino emphasised that Ukraine had not distracted Washington from its focus on China’s growing assertiveness in the region © AARON BUNCH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the serious threat that China poses to Taiwan as its military ratchets up pressure on the island, the top US military commander in the Indo-Pacific region has warned.

Admiral John Aquilino, head of Indo-Pacific Command, said China had displayed a “boldness” over the past year that ranged from its increasingly assertive military activity near Taiwan and other parts of the South China Sea to its rapid nuclear expansion and a hypersonic weapon test in July.

“I don’t think anyone five months ago would have predicted an invasion of the Ukraine. So I think the number one lesson is: ‘Hey, this could really happen,’” Aquilino told the Financial Times during his first visit to Australia as head of US forces in the Indo-Pacific. “Number two, don’t be complacent . . . We have to be prepared at all times.”

China has flown increasing numbers of warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, raising tensions and sparking fear about future military action against the country over which Beijing claims sovereignty.

“Their operations have certainly changed specifically as it applies to their operations around Taiwan — increased maritime and air operations that are designed as a pressure campaign against the people of Taiwan,” Aquilino said in his first wide-ranging interview since assuming command at Indo-Pacom last April.

“I wouldn’t say I’m more concerned, but I do see increased pressure, and we have to make sure we are prepared should any actions get taken,” added Aquilino, who commanded the US Pacific Fleet before Indo-Pacom.

The former Navy “Top Gun” fighter pilot also expressed concern about China’s development of hypersonic weapons. The FT reported last year that China tested a hypersonic weapon that flew around the earth and fired a projectile over the South China Sea as it sped back towards China.

Asked whether the hypersonic weapon was designed to target the US or facilitate an attack on Taiwan, Aquilino said it was an “offensive capability” — not a defensive weapon — that had “many applications”.

“I don’t think it was built for a specific one, but it certainly destabilises the region,” he said. “That capability that could be applied against any partner in the region.”

Aquilino said he was also paying close attention to a “very steep increase” in China’s nuclear arsenal, which the Pentagon projects will surpass 1,000 warheads this decade. He said Indo-Pacom was working with Strategic Command, which overseas US nuclear forces, to provide an “integrated deterrence” against the threat.

The admiral was speaking during a six-day visit to Australia aimed at further solidifying the US-Australia alliance to boost military interoperability and co-operation to deter threats from China to North Korea.

Before arriving in Canberra, Aquilino visited a base in Darwin hosting US Marines as part of the Pentagon’s effort to be more “forward deployed” in the Indo-Pacific region. He later flew to Amberly, an air force base near Brisbane, to greet the crew of a B-2 stealth bomber that had flown in from the US to demonstrate American long-range military power to potential adversaries.

“We’re synchronising more and more with our allies and partners,” said Aquilino, pointing to a recent military exercise that involved seven countries and four aircraft carriers. “Bringing that credible combat deterrent force and operating forward with our allies and partners is one of the key focus areas.”

Asked what role Australia and Japan would play in any Taiwan conflict, he said they would have to decide for themselves but said the US wanted to be ready to operate with its allies.

“What we want to continue to do is to operate together, train together . . . so that whatever decisions those policymakers choose, we’re ready to be able to respond as tasked.”

Ahead of Australia, Aquilino flew to Indonesia for talks. In a rare move, he also flew in a P-8 surveillance aircraft over three contested reefs in the South China Sea that China has militarised in recent years.

His trip comes as the US is focused on helping Ukraine repel the Russian invasion, which has triggered concern among some experts that Washington will lose its focus on China at a critical time. But he stressed the US posture in Asia had not changed and that “everyone understands the security challenge” in the region.

“They understand that credible combat power forward, combined with our allies and partners, is an extremely strong deterrent factor . . . I have not had any of my forces taken and sent to the other part of the world,” said Aquilino. “That said, the adversary gets a vote, so there’s no telling what might happen.”

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