Open conflict between China and the United States could be just two years away, according to an unusually blunt memo by a top U.S. general that is just the latest in a number of alarming predictions that the world’s two leading military powers are at risk of direct collision, most likely over the fate of Taiwan.
The warning came from a top Air Force commander, Gen. Michael A. Minihan, who cited Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s securing of a third term and the January 2024 presidential elections in Taiwan, the self-governing democracy of 23 million that Beijing claims as its territory, as reasons to accelerate troop preparation.
Readying for a war is a general’s job — and Minihan’s view is not that of the government, a U.S. defense official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue — but his gut-feeling assessment is a stark reminder of the stakes involved in attempts to prevent bilateral relations slipping from frosty hostilities to a hot conflict.
Why is the U.S. military so worried about China?
For some in the United States, urgency in countering China’s military threat is often tied to the ambition of Xi. After doing away with an earlier dictum that China should “bide its time and hide its strength,” he has stoked nationalism and adopted an assertive diplomatic stance.
Regarding Taiwan, the most sensitive issue in the bilateral relationship, Xi has said that the problem cannot be passed down from generation to generation, leading some analysts to argue that he considers unification his task to complete.
While “peaceful reunification” remains the Communist Party’s preferred solution to disagreements with Taipei, it will never abandon the right to use of force if necessary, Xi said at a recent meeting of top party officials. By keeping that option open, he added, China wants to deter “Taiwan independence forces” and “foreign interference” — meaning the United States.
Beijing’s view is that the United States is entirely to blame for diplomatic and military tensions. An official white paper about China’s Taiwan strategy, released after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi became the highest-ranking U.S. politician to visit the island democracy since 1997, accused Washington of “using Taiwan to contain China.”
How about the Chinese military?
Under Xi’s urging, China’s military has made rapid headway toward its goal of becoming a world-class fighting force on par with United States by 2050. Its troops have no real combat experience — the last war China fought was a brief but bloody conflict with Vietnam in 1979 — but the official defense budget has grown from $114.3 billion in 2014 to $230 billion in 2022. The real figure is probably higher.
Even so, it remains a fraction of American spending, which was set at $816.7 billion for fiscal 2023.
Being able to take Taiwan by force is the primary objective of Chinese military modernization, and the People’s Liberation Army has ramped up shows of force in recent months. In response to the Pelosi visit in August, China rehearsed a blockade of Taiwan by firing missiles and sending battleships and warplanes into strategically important locations on all sides of the main island.
Chinese fighter jets regularly venture close to Taiwanese airspace. Flight paths that cross an unofficial boundary running down the middle of the Taiwan Strait, unheard of before 2021, had become routine by the end of 2022.
Is there a timeline to take control of Taiwan?
A lot of dates get thrown around when discussing a potential military invasion of Taiwan. There’s 2027, the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. Another two leading contenders are 2035, the year when Xi wants China to “basically achieve socialist modernization,” and 2049, the centennial of the founding of the People’s Republic. Now, according to Minihan, 2025 is a possibility.
Those who raise the alarm about an imminent invasion point toward the shifting military balance and Xi’s bellicose rhetoric, which they say betrays a determination to achieve unification during his tenure. But experts are divided about whether the Chinese leader has a particular date in mind — or even any timeline at all.
“From Beijing’s perspective, military deterrence is the only reliable way to prevent Taiwan [from] moving toward independence,” said Zhu Feng, executive dean of the Institute for International Studies at Nanjing University, but China remains ill-prepared for a military solution and knows that using force could result in a hostile international environment similar to that which Russia has faced since launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Zhu’s concern is that “both sides continue to frame the issue in their own way such that lingering tensions force both sides to sleepwalk into a military conflict.” In that sense, he said, Minihan’s memo is a timely warning to both sides that “they need to stop overplaying the Taiwan issue.”
How does Taiwan feel about all this?
When Xi broke with norms to take a third term as general secretary of the Communist Party, it led many in Taiwan to worry that war is closer now than it has been in many decades and prepare accordingly.
Taiwanese officials agree that the PLA is ready. Taiwan’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng, said last year that the Chinese military would be fully prepared for an invasion by 2025, adding that the situation after Pelosi’s visit was the “toughest I have seen in more than 40 years.”
But the question is not merely about China’s military might, but also whether it is willing to gamble on confrontation with the United States and international fallout from violently enforcing sovereignty claims.
Under President Tsai Ing-wen, who will step down after elections in January 2024, Taipei has strengthened its informal diplomacy with democratic allies, including the United States, and positioned itself as a bulwark against authoritarian expansionism in the region.
When it comes to the political calculation, one reason for optimism is that Xi appears to think time is on his side, according to Lin Chong-Pin, a retired professor from Tamkang University in Taiwan, who cited the Chinese leader’s belief that the “east is rising and the west is in decline” as evidence that Xi thinks he can afford to wait.
Lin said China’s approach is what he calls “borderline military deterrence,” in which they push as close as possible — but never cross — the line into open conflict. “Even with the rising frequency of PLA navy and air force operations across the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan [after Pelosi’s visit], there has not been a single case of physical damage and bloodshed,” he said.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.