A top U.S. admiral has said that Taiwan is in China's military sights, warning of possible military action in the next six years, as well as fears Beijing could overtake America's global leadership role in the coming decades.
"Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions. ... And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years," Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.
Davidson also said China could overtake the United States' hegemony in global affairs and assume a world leadership role by 2050.
"I worry that they're [China] accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order," he added.
"They've long said that they want to do that by 2050. I’m worried about them moving that target closer."
China has not reacted to his claims. However, on Tuesday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman urged the U.S. to stop arms sales to Taiwan.
"China's position on the Taiwan question is consistent and clear. There is but one China in the world, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory," Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.
China views democratic Taiwan as an illegitimate breakaway province. When the civil war in China between the Communists and the Nationalists ended in 1949, with the former triumphant, the latter set up a rival government in Taipei.
In recent months, China has increased its military activity near the island in response to what it calls "secessionist forces" and "collusion" between Taipei and Washington.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen won a landslide election last year on a promise of defending the island's democracy and standing up to China.
The Chinese Communist Party has not ruled out the use of force to bring the island under Beijing's control.
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As China's huge annual political congress is underway in Beijing, the country's top diplomat State Councilor Wang Yi struck a tough line on Taiwan on Monday. He warned there was no room for compromise, stating that the new U.S. government should drop the previous administration's "dangerous acts of playing with fire."
White House press secretary Jen Psaki responded to his comments at a news briefing in Washington on Monday, underscoring that America's commitment to Taiwan was "rock solid."
"Our position on Taiwan remains clear. We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security and values in the Indo-Pacific region," she said.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China represented America's "biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century." He added that the U.S. relationship with China will be "competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be."
Taiwan remains a "high priority for the Chinese central leadership," former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, president of the Asia Society, told NBC News.
"Sensitivity is in the eyes of the beholder and Beijing's list of sensitivities is different from Washington's list of sensitivities, but obviously Taiwan remains near the top," he said.
Both capitals, however, were keen to avoid "any open armed conflict," Rudd said, but should be careful not to mistakenly step into existing minefields.
China is strengthening its military capabilities, he added, although preserving "strategic peace" with the United States remained "paramount" for its leader, Xi Jinping, he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.