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US General's Bellicose China Memo Highlights Civilian-Military Divide

FILE - Michael Minihan, right, now a U.S. Air Force general, walks with President Barack Obama to board Air Force One, at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, June 4, 2012.
FILE - Michael Minihan, right, now a U.S. Air Force general, walks with President Barack Obama to board Air Force One, at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, June 4, 2012.

A controversial memo from a U.S. Air Force general predicting war with China in 2025 may reflect a growing disconnect between the way the United States’ civilian and military leadership view the relationship between the world’s two largest economic powers.

In the memo, which began circulating online over the weekend, General Michael Minihan opens with the stark statement, “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”

Minihan, in charge of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC), a 5,000-person unit focused on logistics, offers no evidence for his prediction of war between the U.S. and China other than a vague assertion that upcoming elections in the U.S. and Taiwan will create an opportunity for Beijing to attempt reunifying the self-governing island with the mainland. China has long claimed that Taiwan is part of Chinese territory.

‘Aim for the head’

The general’s memo orders units under his command to step up their training and readiness to be prepared “to deter, and if required, to defeat China.”

In addition to broad directives about the AMC’s logistical readiness, Minihan adds several specific orders, including the directive that “All AMC aligned personnel with weapons qualification will fire a clip into a 7-meter target with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most. Aim for the head.”

A former C-130 pilot, Minihan has served in other senior roles in the U.S. military, including deputy commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command from September 2019 to August 2021, so he has a deep understanding of the Chinese military.

Civilian-military split

Minihan’s comments appear to contradict statements by senior officials in the Biden administration, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. Earlier this month, Austin told reporters that the U.S. has noted increasingly aggressive behavior by China toward Taiwan but downplayed the possibility of a near-term attack.

“We believe that they endeavor to establish a new normal, but whether or not that means that an invasion is imminent, I seriously doubt that,” he said.

In a statement sent to VOA, Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder said, “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.”

Asked about the Minihan memo specifically, the Pentagon forwarded a statement attributed to an unnamed Defense Department official saying, “These comments are not representative of the department’s view on China.”

Other warnings from top brass

However, Minihan is not the first senior officer to warn of looming conflict with China in recent months. In October, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday suggested that U.S. forces need to be prepared for potential conflict with China as soon as this year.

“I can’t rule that out,” Gilday said. “I don’t mean at all to be [an] alarmist by saying that, it’s just that we can’t wish that away.”
During his confirmation hearings in 2021, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command head Admiral John Aquilino was asked about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan. He replied, “My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think.”

In December, he said that people who were surprised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year should consider the possibility of a similar attack by China on Taiwan.

“This could happen in the Pacific region,” he said in an appearance at the Reagan National Defense Forum. “We shouldn’t be surprised that it can happen.”

‘Very unwise’

Michael O'Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told VOA that he believes that the Minihan memo was a serious error, and one that ought to have been more sternly rebuked by the Department of Defense.

“It conflates the importance of deterrence with the likelihood of war in a way that is, I think, very unwise, and potentially dangerous because of the potential [for creating] a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “It’s at odds with U.S. government policy, which does not call China a looming enemy. It calls China a ‘pacing challenge,’ or ‘our most consequential strategic competitor.’ Those words were carefully chosen to say that we need to think about the possibility of war with China, with an eye towards deterring it. But we don't need to think about its imminence.”

O’Hanlon expressed concern that Minihan’s attitude toward China is gaining currency in the U.S., creating the possibility that some small future crisis, otherwise containable, might serve as the spark for a broader conflict.

“I worry that he's just a blunter version of an attitude that's becoming more prevalent,” O’Hanlon said. “I see this in a lot of the strategic community in the United States. There is an appropriate vigilance about China, and that's all to the good, but we have to avoid demonizing them. We have to avoid thinking that the first crisis is just sort of the beginning of the inevitable fights and that we should get after it while we still are in the dominant position. That kind of attitude is a little bit too prevalent for my taste.”

No evidence of imminent threat

“There's no evidence to support the assertion that China is seriously contemplating an attack on Taiwan in the next few years. No evidence,” Timothy R. Heath, a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, told VOA.

However, Heath said he sees a significant divide between the way senior military officers regard China and the attitude of the United States government.

“There is a surprising disconnect between the assessments being put out by senior political leaders and the statements by top military leaders, which express a much higher level of alarm and fear that an attack is coming or looming,” he said.

Heath said a combination of factors appear to have led to that disconnect. Political leaders, he said, tend to look at China as a strategic threat, but also as a trading partner and a potential collaborator in the fight against climate change. They see a country trapped in a major economic and demographic crisis, both of which have a higher priority in Beijing than reunification with Taiwan.

Military leaders, Heath said, tend to focus more closely on the undisputed fact that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has grown more sophisticated and dangerous in recent years. They also have concerns closer to home.

“There is a political angle here, with Congress thinking about slashing the defense budget,” Heath said. “These generals – I hate to say it – they have an incentive to remind leaders of a potential major security threat that would require a strong defense.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry comments

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning was asked to address the general’s comments in a news conference Monday.

“Taiwan is part of China,” she said. “Resolving the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese. The real cause of the new round of tensions across the Taiwan Strait is the [Taiwanese] authorities’ continued act of soliciting U.S. support for ‘Taiwan independence’ and the agenda among some people in the U.S. to use Taiwan to contain China.”

She added, “We urge the U.S. to abide by the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiqués, deliver on U.S. leaders’ commitment of not supporting ‘Taiwan independence,’ stop meddling in the Taiwan question, stop military contact with Taiwan and stop creating new factors that could lead to tensions in the Taiwan Strait.”