What the chances of a war between the US and China actually look like, according to experts
It is unclear if China has decided to invade Taiwan.
The head of Air Mobility Command’s recent memo predicting that the United States and China will be at war in 2025 underscores how divided the national security community is on whether a conflict with China is likely – or even inevitable.
For the past two presidential administrations, defense officials have stressed that China poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security in the long run.
The Defense Department “will act urgently to sustain and strengthen deterrence, with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as our most consequential strategic competitor and the pacing challenge for the Department,” a Pentagon fact sheet from March 2022 about the latest National Defense Strategy says.
In his memo forward-dated Feb. 1, AMC commander Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan went one step further by writing he feels China cannot be deterred from Invading Taiwan.
“I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” Minihan wrote adding that all airmen with weapons qualifications under his command must go to the firing range and expend a “clip” while practicing taking head shots from seven meters away.
“Aim for the head,” Minihan wrote.
Air Force Brig Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, has described Minihan’s statements about a likely war over Taiwan as “not representative of the department’s view on China.”
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A recent war game conducted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C., found that the U.S. military would suffer heavy losses if it were ever called upon to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion.
Despite the tremendous costs of such a war, Minihan appeared to argue in his memo that a conflict with China is a foregone conclusion.
Former Democratic Congressman Elaine Luria said that Minhian’s comments were inappropriate and provocative. While China’s military has been growing, it is still not clear to the U.S. government what their intentions are, Luria told Task & Purpose on Monday.
China’s forces are strong enough to harass Taiwan, which the Chinese consider to be a renegade province, but it is unclear whether China’s leaders have decided to invade the island nation, she added.
“China’s future actions are an unknown path,” Luria said. “We can observe what they’re doing; we can infer things from that and act or react based off of that. But, I would say that if the Chinese are looking at us, it’s not very clear. Obviously, we have a stated policy of strategic ambiguity, with neither saying that we will or we won’t come to the defense of Taiwan. But I think that our policy, broadly, is very muddled in regards to China.”
In various national security documents, the United States has pledged to “promote” and “ensure” and “preserve” a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and each of those three words means something different, Luria said.
Further confusing the issue, President Joe Biden has repeatedly said that the U.S. military would come to Taiwan’s assistance if the Chinese invaded the island nation even though the United States is not obligated to defend Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
The message from top U.S. defense officials on whether China can be deterred from invading Taiwan has been somewhat confusing. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during a Jan. 11 meeting between U.S. and Japanese government officials that he doubts that an invasion of Taiwan is imminent despite increased Chinese air and naval activity in the region.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also said in November that China would be making a strategic mistake by trying to invade Taiwan and any such military operation would fare just as poorly as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
However, retired Adm. Philip Davidson, then head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, warned in 2021 that China could invade Taiwan by 2027. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday said in October that China could move against Taiwan even sooner.
“When we talk about the 2027 window, in my mind that has to be a 2022 window or potentially a 2023 window,” Gilday said at a virtual event hosted by the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, D.C. “I can’t rule that out. I don’t mean at all to be alarmist by saying that; it’s just that we can’t wish that away.”
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va) told Task & Purpose that he believes in Davidson’s assertion that China will try to seize Taiwan by 2027. That is why he opposes the U.S. military’s efforts to divest vessels, such as Freedom-variant Littoral Combat Ships along with older aircraft in order to invest in newer weapons systems.
“As Congress reviews the force structure implications of the Davidson window, I believe that it is imperative that we maintain existing capacity, particularly for our air and maritime forces, and provide the weapons necessary to dissuade potential conflict that could occur later this decade in the Indo-Pacific,” said Wittman, vice chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
Ultimately, a war between China and the United States would largely arise from political decisions that Chinese Communist Party leaders make, especially China’s President Xi Jinping, said retired Navy Capt. Thomas Shugart, a military innovation expert with the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C.
Shugart has long argued that the mid-to-late 2020s will be a dangerous time for the United States, during which its efforts to deter China from using military force against Taiwan may no longer be effective.
During that time frame, the U.S. military is expected to retire Cold War weapons systems en masse, including F-15 and F-16 fighters, Los Angeles-class attack submarines, and Guided Missile Submarines, Shugart told Task & Purpose.
Meanwhile, the Chinese military will continue and grow and become a more modern capable force, so its leaders will become more likely to tell top members of the Chinese Communist Party that they can forcibly take Taiwan with an acceptable risk of mission failure, he said.
The Defense Department is taking steps to prepare for war with China if deterrence fails. The Marine Corps, for example, is conducting a massive reorganization to make it flexible enough to fight China.
As part of Force Design 2030, the Marines will have three littoral regiments on Hawaii, Okinawa, and Guam, which are intended to set up firebases on remote Pacific islands and use anti-ship missiles to destroy Chinese vessels.
However, Elbridge Colby, a former defense official who is now with The Marathon Initiative think tank in Washington, D.C., has warned that the U.S. military is still not prepared to act if China invades Taiwan.
In an August 2022 article for Foreign Affairs, Colby argued that the Defense Department is not buying munitions in large enough quantities for a war with China. He also wrote that the Navy lacks anti-ship and SM-6 missiles, and the service’s shipbuilding plan doesn’t envisage producing enough vessels to defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan before the 2040s at the earliest.
“We simply do not know whether China will attack Taiwan in this decade,” Colby wrote. “But it is a reasonable presumption that Beijing is much more likely to strike if it concludes it would succeed, and significant factors indicate that it may judge this decade to be the most propitious one.”
Update: 1/30/2023; This article was updated after publication with comments from Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
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