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Biden's national security adviser is hopeful war over Taiwan can be prevented

NPR's Steve Inskeep interviews U.S. President Joe Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 5, 2023.
Catie Dull
NPR's Steve Inskeep interviews U.S. President Joe Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 5, 2023.

Tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan have raised the prospect of a potential military conflict, but national security adviser Jake Sullivan believes such a scenario can be avoided.

"There is a risk of conflict with respect to Taiwan, but I believe that with responsible stewardship, we can ensure that this contingency never comes to pass. And that is our responsibility," he told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep in an exclusive interview.

Sullivan, however, acknowledged that achieving this objective will require "hard work" and "coordination with allies."

"It will require us following through on the commitments of the Taiwan Relations Act, which for 40 years now has said we will provide defensive articles to Taiwan. And it will require direct diplomacy with the [People's Republic of China]," he said. "We have to make this a priority to ensure there is not a war over the Taiwan Strait."

On December 23, China urged the U.S. to stop testing Beijing's "red line" on Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory.

"The U.S. must take seriously China's legitimate concerns, stop containing and suppressing China's development, and particularly stop using salami tactics to constantly challenge China's red line," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping raised the issue of Taiwan with President Biden during their meeting at the G20 summit in Bali in November 2022. He reiterated that the Taiwan question was the "very core of China's core interests" and the "first red line" in bilateral ties.

Beijing further stoked tensions by conducting multiple military exercises in the Taiwan Strait over the past year. In late December, China sent 71 military planes and seven ships toward the island over a 24-hour window after Beijing expressed anger of Taiwan-related provisions in the omnibus spending bill.

Sullivan's comments about Taiwan are part of an interview that touched on a number of other national security concerns, including semiconductors, Ukraine and the Middle East.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On what a potential airstrike on Taiwan would mean

I don't want to get into hypotheticals about what a particular military contingency would look like. But I will say this. When we entered office, more than 90% of the most advanced semiconductors were produced in Taiwan. The remaining percentage were produced in [Republic of Korea]. 0% percent were produced in the United States.

We still rely on importing those chips from Taiwan and from ROK, and we are going to have to build those fabs and create that leading edge manufacturing here in America again. You can't do that overnight. But we believe we are on a pathway to do that. And that month by month, the U.S. supply chain is becoming more secure.

On the meeting between Biden and Xi

I believe that the meeting between the two presidents in Bali did in fact place a floor under the relationship. It provided some greater stability and a direction to teams both in Beijing and in Washington to work on issues where it is in our common interest to make progress. For example, there is no reason that the United States and China, as the world's two largest emitters of carbon, that we cannot find a way to work together to reduce overall carbon emissions in the world and contribute to solving the climate crisis.

There is no reason why the United States and China cannot work together to reduce the flow of precursor chemicals that go into fentanyl that is killing tens of thousands of Americans.

That does not erase the fact that we have fundamental differences and different disagreements with the PRC, and we are not going to be shy about those, whether it's speaking out on human rights, whether it is pushing back against provocative actions around Taiwan, whether it is the ways in which the PRC acts in an intimidating and coercive way against its neighbors.

On the tech competition between the U.S. and China

Semiconductors, as many people have now learned, actually just since the COVID-19 pandemic, are fundamental to the powering of our economy across the board, whether it's our cars or our appliances or any of our high tech products, our iPhones, computers and so forth. Semiconductors are also central to military power. It is semiconductors that that power the guidance systems for advanced missiles, it is semiconductors that are in every part of a nuclear submarine.

The United States has done is two things in the last two years. First, we've said we are going to invest once again in the United States of America being a manufacturing powerhouse for semiconductors. [...] Second, we've said we are no longer going to allow the most advanced chips which are designed in the United States to be used in the weapons systems of countries that are our strategic competitors, like the PRC.

NPR's Steve Inskeep interviews national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 5, 2023.
Catie Dull / NPR
NPR's Steve Inskeep interviews national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 5, 2023.

On the war in Ukraine

The essential thrust of American policy is [...] to provide Ukraine the means to put themselves in the best possible position on the battlefield, to make the most gains possible. And eventually, if there comes to be a negotiating table that they choose, because it's up to them, that they are in the best possible position at the negotiating table. Predicting exactly what the course of the war will be, how it will unfold, over what time period it will unfold, I will leave that to others.

On his upcoming trip to Israel

The first thing that I intend to convey is the fact that [...] the United States is absolutely committed to Israel's security, and that's not going to change. President Biden has been a fundamental and stalwart supporter of the state of Israel for as long as he's been in public service. Second, we're going to talk through the challenges and opportunities in the Middle East region. There are significant challenges, including the threat posed by Iran. On the other hand, there are real opportunities, including what we've seen in the deepening normalization between Israel and some of the Arab states.

We continue to support the two state solution, and we will oppose policies and practices that undermine the viability of the two state solution or that cut hard against the historic status quo in Jerusalem. And I will be clear and direct on those points.

Lilly Quiroz produced the audio of this interview. Majd Al-Waheidi edited the interview highlights. contributed to this story

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.