WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s highest-ranking officer warned China off a potential invasion of Taiwan, emphasizing Wednesday that such a move would be a “dangerous game” for Beijing, especially given its military’s lack of fighting experience.
“For someone who has a military that hasn’t fought in combat since fighting the Vietnamese in 1979, they would be playing a very, very dangerous game to cross the [Taiwan] Strait and invade the island of Taiwan,” said Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “They don’t have the experience, the background to do it. They haven’t trained to it yet.”
Calling Chinese President Xi Jinping “a rational actor,” Milley said he did not believe Beijing would attempt to invade Taiwan soon, as President Biden has signaled the US would come to the island nation’s aid should its self-governance be threatened.
“I think he evaluates things on cost-benefit risk, and I think that he would conclude that an attack on Taiwan in the near future [would] be an excessive amount of risk and would end in a strategic debacle for the Chinese military,” the general said of Xi. “It would throw off their ‘China Dream’ of being the number one economic and military power.”
Xi has made “reunification” with Taiwan his primary goal. The United States adheres to a so-called “One China” policy, which acknowledges China’s claims of sovereignty over the island, but considers its status unsettled.
Lessons from Ukraine War
Russia’s unsuccessful invasion of Ukraine has taught the US and China “lessons” about a potential invasion of the island, Milley also said Wednesday. For the US, “the key is now to make sure that Taiwan can defend itself.”
For China, Russia’s lack of success offers a cautionary tale.
“President Xi and the Chinese military are learning … that war on paper is a whole lot different than real war,” Milley said. “And when blood is spilled, and people die in real tanks being blown up, things are a little bit different.”
Taiwan’s “complex terrain” would also challenge Chinese troops if they attempted to take over the island, Milley went on.
“Attacking and seizing the island of Taiwan across the strait – putting troops on the island of Taiwan – that’s a very difficult military task to do,” he said. “Most of Taiwan is a mountainous island, so it’s a very, very difficult … military operation to execute.”
“I think it will be some time before the Chinese have the military capability and are ready to do it,” he added.
Still, the general cautioned that he “could be wrong” in his assessment.
“A incident could happen, some sort of political thing could happen in a moment in time and all of the decisions would change very, very rapidly,” Milley said. “But I think that the Chinese would be high-risk to take on an operation like that, and I think it would be unwise, a political mistake, a geopolitical mistake [and] a strategic mistake.”
Preventing a ‘great power’ war
The Pentagon considers China its greatest geopolitical challenge due to the rapid growth and modernization of its military with the intent to overthrow America as the world’s superpower. However, Milley vowed the Pentagon is “not gonna allow that to happen.”
“China is not shy about their goal: They want to be the number one power in the globe by mid- century – by 2049,” Milley said. “We are not going to let China take number one … We will be number one five years from now, 10 years from now and 50 years from now.”
Beijing has said they want to be “equal to or superior militarily” to the US by 2027, “but they’re not going to get there” the Joint Chiefs chairman added.
“As long as we remain number one, then we will deter the war that people worry about – the great power war between China and the United States.”
The comments came about a month after the conservative Heritage Foundation rated the US military as “weak” in an annual report which alleged that American forces were “at significant risk of not being able to meet the demands of a single major regional conflict.”
The Washington, DC, think tank said the US must invest more in hard-power capabilities – and be willing to use them – to ensure it can deter and, if necessary, defend against a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
“In general, the military services continue to prioritize readiness and have seen some improvement over the past few years, but modernization programs, especially in shipbuilding, continue to suffer as resources are committed to preparing for the future, recovering from 20 years of [anti-terrorism] operations and offsetting the effects of inflation,” the report said.
But Milley said he was confident that the US was fully capable of taking on China if necessary.
“Right now, the United States military is without question – despite whatever criticisms people have – the most lethal war-fighting machine on Earth, bar none,” he said. “As long as we have the military capability, we have the will to use it, [our] adversary knows it, then [we will] deter that war.
“But the key is to have the military capability,” Milley added, “and we intend to stay number one.”