A top US general has set the cat among Washington’s proverbial pigeons by saying America could be at war with China in 2025.
You read that right: two years from now, the world’s top two economies and nuclear superpowers may be in a shooting war over Taiwan, according to Air Force Gen Mike Minihan, the man responsible for the US military’s mid-air refuelling operations.
“My gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” the four-star general in charge of the Air Mobility Command wrote in a memo, exhorting his troops to be “ready to fight and win” in Taiwan.
The internal memo was supposed to be released to Gen Minihan’s Wing Commanders on Wednesday, but a copy was leaked to NBC News.
The alarming language prompted the Pentagon to take the rare step of distancing itself from one of its own commanders, saying that Gen Minihan's comments were “not representative of the department's view on China”.
The general opens his directive by saying: “I hope I am wrong." He writes that his intent is to ensure US forces are positioned “to deter, and if required, defeat China".
It is easy to dismiss strident language like this as colourful hyperbole, or a product of the macho echo chamber of the world's biggest war machine. After all, a commander’s job is to ensure his or her troops are always ready to fight – and to shake off any complacency that inevitably comes during peacetime.
In South Korea, the US Eighth Army has maintained a “Fight Tonight” mentality for decades, signalling a supposedly perpetual state of readiness should things suddenly take an urgent turn on the peninsula.
And commanders at Nato’s headquarters in Kabul would frequently admonish troops that Taliban fighters could climb over the compound’s blast walls at any time – an unlikely scenario in what was then the world’s best protected square kilometre.
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Troops serving under Jim Mattis, the now-retired Marine Corps general who headed Centcom from 2010-2013, revered their boss in no small part due to his gung-ho pearls of wisdom.
“Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet,” he famously said on one occasion, telling his Marines on another that it’s a “hell of a hoot” to shoot people.
In similarly tough talk, Gen Minihan instructs all troops with weapons qualifications to practise firing their guns, figuratively telling them to “aim for the head” and that “unrepentant lethality matters most”.
War is horror and, ultimately, a soldier’s job is to kill or be killed. Rousing the ranks is par for the strategic course. But one shouldn’t shrug off Gen Minihan’s statements as just an attempt to fuel the fighting spirit.
Whatever the reason for leaking the memo, its release fits into a broader pattern of US messaging to China.
In 2021, US Navy Admiral Phil Davidson told the US Congress of his concerns about China’s ambitions to overtake the US and said Beijing might strike Taiwan before 2027.
In October last year, Chief of Naval Operations, Adm Michael Gilday, said Chinese President Xi Jinping had set a timeline for Beijing to reunify with Taiwan by 2027 – by force, if necessary – but he warned that the move could come much sooner, possibly even this year.
A few months earlier, President Joe Biden said the US would intervene militarily if China were to enter Taiwan, using stronger language than the typical “strategic ambiguity” normally deployed for messaging over the island.
When asked about Gen Minihan's memo, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Mao Ning said China was “willing to, with the utmost sincerity and greatest effort, pursue peaceful reunification [with Taiwan], but we will not promise to abandon the use of force”.
We “need to reserve the option of taking all necessary measures”, he said, according to Reuters.
Gen Minihan notes that Taiwan and US presidential elections are in 2024, events that will offer Mr Xi “a reason” to make a move on Taiwan while America is consumed by its own campaign season.
Adam Smith, the congressman who is the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said he disagreed with Gen Minihan's assessment.
War with China is “not only not inevitable, it is highly unlikely”, Mr Smith told Fox News.
“We have a very dangerous situation in China. But I think generals need to be very cautious about saying we're going to war, it's inevitable,” he said.
It's impossible to know what will happen. But it's easy to agree with Gen Minihan on one thing: Let's hope he’s wrong.