Air Force Gen. Michael Minihan is one of those guys who has real-world warfighting responsibilities. He’s commander of Air Force Air Mobility Command, which means that he’s the man who has to put up the “air bridge” – the hundreds of tanker aircraft that ensure our combat and cargo aircraft can get where and when they’re needed – in the first stage of any big crisis.
His memorandum to subordinate commanders, dated Feb. 1 but released on Jan. 27, is named, “February 2023 Orders in Preparation for – The Next Fight.” In it, Gen. Minihan describes the situation saying, “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025. [Chinese President Xi Jinping] secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022. Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. United States’ presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”
Gen. Minihan’s memo is not the first such warning of the approaching war with China. In March 2021, Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said that China was accelerating its ambitions toward Taiwan and that he expected the threat to manifest itself within six years. Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, also predicted war by 2027. In November, Adm. Richard warned that with respect to China, our deterrent is a slowly sinking ship.
Gen. Minihan’s memo was too much for Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Mr. Smith told a television interviewer that armed conflict was “highly unlikely,” adding, “We have a very dangerous situation in China, but I think generals need to be very cautious about saying, ‘We’re going to war.’”
Mr. Smith added, “That’s a very dangerous situation that we need to be prepared for, but I’m fully confident that we can avoid that conflict if we take the right approach.”
And just how is President Biden taking “the right approach?” In November, Mr. Biden pulled dozens of F-15 fighters out of Japan.
Mr. Biden has been sending enormous quantities of U.S. weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, as he should. But his action has depleted our stockpiles to the point that, as a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, “According to a series of CSIS war games, the United States would likely run out of some munitions – such as long-range, precision-guided munitions – in less than one week in a Taiwan Strait conflict.” That is because Mr. Biden isn’t – and possibly can’t – replenishing our munitions supplies fast enough because defense contractors can’t keep up with the demand.
The Chinese know that and too much more about our defense capabilities, or lack of them. They know how distracted we will be by our 2024 campaign, which began when former president Donald Trump announced his candidacy in November. They know, as Gen. Minihan wrote, that Taiwan’s presidential elections will distract them in 2024 as well.
China has its own concept of “the right approach.” There is every sign that China is accelerating its plans to take Taiwan by force and is eroding the boundaries between Taiwan and the mainland. In 2022 China reportedly made more than 1,700 incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, prompting Taiwanese alerts. China learns from each of these exercises as it did from Taiwan’s response to the massive air and sea maneuver China mounted around Taiwan in December and January. China also has been increasing its sorties across the median line in the Taiwan Strait, the de facto border between the two nations.
If, as I expect, Mr. Xi decides to attack Taiwan before 2025, he will find us unprepared. Taiwan is not Ukraine, nor are China’s forces as weak and ineffective as Russian forces have been in Ukraine. Taiwan will fight and fight hard, but they cannot last longer than a few weeks even if we, Australia and Japan intervene.
Mr. Biden has, on at least four occasions, said we would defend Taiwan, and each time his Cabinet members have walked back his statements, indicating we will not intervene militarily. If China attacks Taiwan before 2025, the resulting war could kill tens of thousands of U.S., Japanese and Australian sailors and aviators. It will be a war that we may well lose.
As Adm. Richard said, our deterrent against China is a sinking ship. So what would Mr. Smith do — instead of what Mr. Biden is doing — to avoid that war by taking “the right approach?”
Diplomacy will not prevent China from attacking Taiwan. Even if Mr. Biden clarified our policy and said we would intervene in a Chinese attack, it would likely not be enough. Formally adding Japan to the “AUKUS” alliance —Australia, United Kingdom and U.S. — would help, but probably not enough.
We don’t know what Mr. Biden would do if such a war began while he is in office, particularly if he is defeated in November 2024 and his successor has not yet taken office.
We are sleepwalking to war with China. While Gen. Minihan and Admirals Davidson and Richard are sending up warnings, Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats are ignoring them. We have to do better, but Mr. Biden apparently has no intention of doing so.
• Jed Babbin is a national security and foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Times and contributing editor for The American Spectator.
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