The Pentagon’s top general said China should carefully consider how poorly Russia is faring so far in its military operation against Ukraine as it contemplates any amphibious assault on Taiwan.
The Kremlin’s faltering attempts to conquer Kyiv offer compelling lessons for all sides, including an increasingly bellicose China that has made no secret of its ambitions to “reunify” Taiwan under Beijing’s control, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley said this week following a virtual meeting of NATO and allied defense ministers supporting Ukraine.
U.S. officials have argued that Russia’s continuing difficulties against its smaller neighbor since the invasion began in February should serve as a cautionary tale for the Pacific theater as well. But General Milley’s remarks rank among the most explicit to date as U.S.-Chinese tensions over the future of Taiwan have soared this year.
“War on paper is a whole lot different than real war,” Gen. Milley told reporters at the Pentagon. “When blood is spilled and people die and real tanks are being blown up, things are a little bit different.”
He noted that China hasn’t faced an enemy on the battlefield since the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. Beijing would be playing “a very dangerous game” if it attempts a crossing of the Taiwan Strait, Gen. Milley said.
“They don’t have the experience [or] the background to do it. They haven’t trained to [do] it yet,” he said.
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China had a largely infantry-based army with few heavy combat tanks in its inventory when Gen. Milley was commissioned in 1980.
“And then they got rich,” he said, adding that Beijing’s explosive economic growth in recent years has allowed China to “buy a military.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently reaffirmed that Beijing preferred the “peaceful reunification” of Taiwan but explicitly refused to rule out military action.
“They believe that it’s their day in the sun. They believe it’s, once again, time for the ‘Middle Kingdom’ to be No. 1,” Gen. Milley said. “That’s what they’re shooting for and we are not going to allow that to happen.”
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-win said her government is closely watching the conflict in Ukraine and strongly backed Kyiv in its struggle to defend its sovereignty. China’s Communist regime says it is neutral in the Ukraine war but its official press has largely backed Russia’s argument that NATO expansionism was the root cause of the fight.
“Democracies and the rules-based international order are being challenged on a daily basis. This war is proof that dictatorships will do whatever it takes to achieve their goal of expansionism,” President Tsai said Wednesday in an address to the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy-sponsored Struggle for Freedom conference.
She said the people of Taiwan are also familiar with threats leveled by larger authoritarian neighbors.
“From daily military intimidations, gray zone activities, and influence operations, to cyberattacks and periodic attempts at economic coercion, China has taken a range of actions with the goal of creating doubt and undermining confidence in what the Taiwanese people have worked so diligently for — our democratic way of life,” President Tsai said.
Even as it continues to pour billions of dollars of security assistance into Ukraine, Gen. Milley acknowledged that the U.S. considers China to be the nation’s pacing threat. Beijing is the one country in the world that has the diplomatic, military and economic power to pose a significant challenge to the United States.
China has also stepped up military exercises around Taiwan, in part to protest the recent visit to the island by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August, the highest-ranking U.S. official to travel to Taipei in a quarter-century.
“China is not shy about their goal. They want to be equal to or superior militarily to the United States,” Gen. Milley said. “They’re working on that very, very hard.”
While an amphibious assault might be beyond China’s military abilities in the near term, Beijing is capable of dropping bombs and launching missiles at Taiwan, Gen. Milley said.
“Attacking and seizing the island of Taiwan across the straits, putting troops on the island of Taiwan, that is a very difficult military task to do,” he said. “I think it’ll be some time before the Chinese have the military capability and they’re ready to do it.”