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General’s memo spurs debate: Could China invade Taiwan by 2025?

The Hill logo The Hill 2/2/2023 Ellen Mitchell
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A private memo from an Air Force general telling his charges to prepare for war with China in just two years has stoked worst-case fears for rising global tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea. 

The forecast from Air Mobility Command head Gen. Mike Minihan in a now widely seen Friday memo set off debate among U.S. lawmakers and current and former defense officials as to how accurate or responsible the prediction was. 

But foreign policy experts see little proof China is ready or willing to engage in a fight over Taiwan in that time frame, with an economy still on the mend after damages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and international instability due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.  

“I will say that most of my colleagues who in who are in the China circle do not believe that that a Chinese attack on Taiwan is likely in the next five years,” Yun Sun, director of the Stimson Center’s China program, told The Hill. 

“This is not the first time that we saw a military general — current or retired — coming out and saying, ‘Oh, well, a war with China is around the corner.’ … But when you hear an assessment like this you have to be very careful about the details.” 

Minihan’s memo, which the Pentagon was quick to point out was “not representative” of the Defense Department’s policy, has nonetheless set off debate as to when United States could reasonably expect China to make a move to bring Taiwan under its control.  

Chinese President Xi Jinping himself has mandated that the China’s military, known as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), be capable of taking Taiwan by 2027, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the PLA. 

China has long claimed the Taiwan is part of its territory and must be brought back under its control, by force if necessary. But Taipei, which split from the mainland in 1949, maintains its self-ruled status. 

Tensions between the two powers hit new highs last year after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited the island in August, prompting China to conduct massive military exercises in the air and water around Taiwan.

New House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), is reportedly planning his own trip to Taiwan later this year, a visit that is almost certainly going to set off bellicose rhetoric and fresh Chinese military drills around the island. 

Ahead of that, the U.S. and its allies are keeping a close eye on China’s continued military provocations, the most recent coming early Wednesday when Beijing sent 34 Chinese military aircraft and nine warships near the self-governing island, according to the Ministry of National Defense in Taiwan.  

The movements, one of China’s largest incursions around the island in recent weeks, forced Taiwan to scramble fighter jets and navy ships and activate its missile systems. 

That incident follows NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s warning a day earlier that Beijing is learning lessons from Russia’s war in Ukraine in how it may eventually try to take Taiwan, criticizing China for “bullying its neighbors” and threatening the island.  

And last month, retired Adm. Philip Davidson, the former head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said he stands by his earlier prediction that China may attack Taiwan — even just its small, outer islands — by 2027. 

Davidson’s forecast, first given to Senate Armed Services Committee lawmakers in March 2021, in recent months has appeared to take on more weight. 

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday in October warned that the service is preparing for the chance Chinese could attack Taiwan before 2024.  

“When we talk about the 2027 window, in my mind that has to be a 2022 window or a potentially a 2023 window. I can’t rule that out. I don’t mean at all to be alarmist by saying that, it’s just that we can’t wish that away,” Gilday said. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken the same month said China was seeking unification with Taiwan on a “much faster timeline” than previously thought.  

And in July, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner, the Pentagon’s top Asia official, said it’s “only a matter of time” before a major accident involving the U.S. takes place due to China’s growing military power combined with “with greater willingness to take risks.” 

Minihan, the leader of Air Mobility Command since 2021, reasons that due to the U.S. and Taiwanese elections in 2024, both governments would be distracted and give China a chance to seize the island. 

Though he hopes he is wrong, the four-star general wrote that, “my gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” even advising his airmen to update their virtual Record of Emergency Data, which includes their living wills and dependents’ contact information. 

But Yun said that Minihan’s reference to a gut feeling, rather than an intelligence assessment, is telling.

“He’s an active-duty general, he is the head of Air Mobility Command, but the military’s job is to prepare to fight a war and to prepare to win that war. So their assessment comes from, in many cases, a different perspective and not a political assessment,” she said.  

Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow focused on U.S.-China relations at the Center for a New American Security, also viewed the memo as a call to prepare for any scenario, whenever it may come. 

“I think the memo is really about trying to say that this is a challenge that is more near term, potentially than then long term, as a way of inserting a kind of urgency and realism into the types of planning and operations and training that the airmen under his command are responsible for doing,” Stokes told The Hill.  

“I read that [memo] as kind of a personal opinion. Certainly, that analysis is not what has been assessed by most of the U.S. government or experts on Chinese intentions,” he added.  

What’s more likely to happen than an all-out Taiwan invasion before 2027, Stokes predicted, is a crisis or incident that could spiral out of control.

“Speaker McCarthy goes to Taiwan later in the year. I think we could expect at a minimum a large-scale military exercises by the PLA — similar to what we saw when Speaker Pelosi visited — so there’s going to be ample opportunity for military pressure applied by China on Taiwan to create an incident and spiral out of control.”

Lawmakers were also at odds over Minihan’s forecast, with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) agreeing with the assessment on “Fox News Sunday.”  

Other Republicans, including Sen. Todd Young (Ind.), lauded Minihan’s warning as a clear signal the U.S. needs to be prepared for such a scenario. 

“Having just returned from Taiwan, I share and applaud General Minihan’s urgency about the threat the Chinese Communist Party poses both to Taiwan and the world,” Young tweeted. “The [Defense Department] and our diplomatic community must be ready to address China’s aggression.” 

And Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tweeted that Minihan “has the correct mentality — our bureaucracy needs to catch up.”

However, others pushed back on the prediction as unnecessarily ramping up agitations between the United States and China. 

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said the 2025 timeline for such an event was “not only not inevitable” but “highly unlikely,” warning that “generals need to be very cautious about saying we’re going to war.” 

“Anything is possible,” Smith said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I’m really worried when anyone starts talking about war with China being inevitable.” 

Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey called for Minihan to “be placed on terminal leave” due to his “bad judgment” and “cowboy aggression.” 

The Pentagon, for its part, has not fed into the timeline speculation

“The National Defense Strategy makes clear that China is the pacing challenge for the Department of Defense and our focus remains on working alongside allies and partners to preserve a peaceful, free and open Indo-Pacific,” press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in a statement. 

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