China held Taiwan war council in October, general’s memo reveals

The four-star Air Force general who predicted a likely war with China within two years also revealed in his now-famous memo that Chinese President Xi Jinping convened a “war council” of senior military leaders on Taiwan recently.

Air Force Gen. Michael Minihan, commander of the service’s Air Mobility Command, said in the Feb. 1 memorandum leaked last week to wing commanders that Mr. Xi had recently secured his position as supreme leader and “set his war council in October 2022.” The outspoken general disclosed the meeting while offering his perspective on a potential imminent military clash with China over Taiwan.

The general said he hopes he is wrong, but that “my gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”

Air Mobility Command and Pentagon spokesmen declined to comment on the details of the memo.

While the 2025 war prediction generated headlines, the revelation of the Chinese war council in October may matter more. U.S. officials said the gathering included top members of the Central Military Commission, the Chinese Communist Party’s most powerful institution that is also headed by Mr. Xi and two People’s Liberation Army generals.

Gen. Minihan said his memo is the first of eight monthly directives aimed at increasing readiness, integration and agility for the military to “deter, and if required, defeat China.” U.S. forces must be prepared to fight “inside the first island chain” — the string of islands stretching from Japan to the Philippines that China regards as its primary line of defense on its Pacific coastline, he said.

It’s not the first time the general has sounded the alarm: Last fall during an industry aerospace conference in Washington, Gen. Minihan, who spent 10 years at the Indo-Pacific Command, warned about the threat posed by China in stark language and said the military currently is not ready for a conflict inside the first island chain.

“Lethality matters most,” said Gen. Minihan, a former C-17 transport pilot now in charge of moving military goods in C-17s, C-5s, C-130s and refueling tankers. “When you can kill your enemy, every part of your life is better. Your food tastes better. Your marriage is stronger.”

The Chinese war council mentioned by the general in the new memo was the basis for a string of new warnings from senior U.S. officials that month about China’s timetable for possible military action against Taiwan. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Oct. 17 that China is accelerating plans to take over Taiwan.

“There has been a change in the approach from Beijing toward Taiwan in recent years,” Mr. Blinken said at Stanford University. “And instead of sticking with the status quo that was established in a positive way, [there was] a fundamental decision that the status quo was no longer acceptable, and that Beijing was determined to pursue reunification on a much faster timeline.”

A day after Mr. Blinken’s comments, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday added to the concerns.

Asked about a Chinese timeline for gaining control over the democratic-ruled island and whether it would take place around 2027, Adm. Gilday said the Chinese have delivered on every promise made sooner than expected.

“When we talk about the 2027 window, in my mind that has to be a 2022 window or potentially a 2023 window. I can’t rule it out,” he said. “I don’t mean at all to be alarmist by saying that. It’s just that we can’t wish that away.”

And Adm. Sam Paparo, commander of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, which would be in charge of responding to a conflict with China over Taiwan, made clear the danger of a Chinese attack is real.

“This is a decade of concern,” Adm. Paparo told The Washington Times on Oct. 18. “So I absolutely see the logic in the secretary’s discussion.”

Adm. Paparo added that Beijing war preparations are evidence in PLA “rehearsals” for military action.

The largest such rehearsal took place in August, in the wake of the visit to Taiwan by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that infuriated Chinese leaders. The PLA launched large-scale aerial and naval exercises days after the visit that included missile firings that bracketed the island.

Retired Navy Capt. Carl O. Schuster, a former intelligence officer, analyzed the Chinese war games and noted that the drills were conducted at six locations around Taiwan for several days. Despite its timing around the Pelosi visit, the war games were large and complex and showed months of planning.

Military analysts said the war games were intended to show off Chinese military power and to intimidate Taiwan and warn both the United States and Japan not to intervene in a future Chinese operation against the island.

The exercises “marked the largest PLA air-missile-maritime exercise ever conducted,” said Capt. Schuster, who at one time was director of operations at the military’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii.

In addition to missile firings, Chinese forces practiced a naval blockade of Taiwan through test firings of land-attack and anti-ship missiles. Battalion-sized amphibious operations by Chinese troops also were used along the coast opposite Taiwan, and military drones penetrated the airspace over offshore Taiwanese islands and the northwest and southwest corners of Taiwan‘s air defense zone.

The Biden administration has stepped up diplomatic engagement with China in a bid to step back from growing military talk and tensions on both sides. President Biden met in November with Mr. Xi at a G-20 summit in Indonesia and Mr. Blinken is scheduled to visit China on Saturday and Sunday.

Divided opinion

Beijing condemned Gen. Minihan’s remarks and the Pentagon sought to play down the prediction of war by 2025. “These comments are not representative of the department’s view on China,” said a Defense Department spokesman.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, asked in Tokyo on Jan. 11 about Chinese plans for a Taiwan invasion, replied, “I won’t second-guess Mr. Xi, but what I will tell you, what we’re seeing recently, is some very provocative behavior on the part of China’s forces and their attempt to re-establish a new normal.”

Increased warplane and warship activity in the Taiwan Strait are provocative and intended to create a “new normal,” Mr. Austin said. “But whether or not that means that an invasion is imminent, I seriously doubt that,” he said.

But some key figures in the U.S., including new House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, said they agreed with the assessment.

“I hope [Gen. Minihan] is wrong. I think he is right, though,” the Texas Republican said on Fox News Sunday.

Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, former intelligence director for the Pacific Fleet, said Gen. Minihan’s memo was a prudent, rational assessment.

“Regarding General Minihan’s comments about Xi and his ‘war council’ being likely to conduct an invasion by 2025 is not warmongering but aligns with similar predictions of a PRC invasion that have been made by several senior U.S. military officers,” Capt. Fanell said.

Two Indo-Pacific Command commanders, the commander of Strategic Command, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday and other senior officers have made similar warnings of a coming conflict with China, he said.

And Taiwanese and Japanese officials also have voiced warnings about potentially Chinese aggression across the Taiwan Strait.

“All these voices of warning have one thing in common — an increasingly aggressive and expansive PLA whose actions are the kinds of indications and warning military commanders throughout history have seen before conflict begins,” Capt. Fanell said.

Capt. Fanell said the most compelling evidence involved the PLA’s August exercises around Taiwan. Since that event, the PLA has dramatically increased its operations around Taiwan and across the Taiwan Strait, he said.

Capt. Fanell said the apparent playing down of Gen. Minihan’s warning by the Pentagon suggests civilian defense leaders “are more concerned about upsetting Xi and the Central Military Commission than in exposing the PRC’s threatening behavior.”

“Instead of vilifying the general, this administration and Congress should take his words to heart and turn them into action that can deter, and in worse case, defeat an invading PLA force,” Capt. Fanell said.

A U.S. official involved in China affairs offered yet another take on the memo, saying Gen. Minihan’s comments appear linked to inter-service rivalry over U.S. military preparations for war with China. The Army and Air Force are said to be seeking to outflank the Navy in jockeying for leading positions in any new command structure.

China also is expected to recalculate plans for military action against Taiwan following Russia’s bogged down military operations in Ukraine.

U.S. efforts to build up alliances in Asia also are part of an effort to deter China from taking military action.

Both Japan and Australia have signaled they would join a U.S. military defense of Taiwan, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday on a visit to Tokyo that the alliance is working closely with partners in the region and is concerned about threats from China.

“Working with partners around the world, especially in the Indo-Pacific, is part of the answer to a more dangerous and unpredictable world,” Mr. Stoltenberg said in remarks at a university.

“The war in Ukraine demonstrates how security is interconnected. It demonstrates that what happens in Europe has a consequence for East Asia, and what happens in East Asia matters to Europe,” he said, adding that “the idea China doesn’t matter for NATO doesn’t work.”

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