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Milley adds confusion to America’s ambiguity on defending Taiwan

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley speaks during a House Committee on Armed Services hearing to discuss the FY 2022 budget on June 23
UPI Photo

Has the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff just added another layer of ambiguity on whether America will defend Taiwan against aggression from China?

Gen. Mark Milley seemed to raise the threshold for possible U.S. intervention when he testified last week before the House Armed Services Committee. He was asked whether he agreed with the earlier congressional testimony from the outgoing and incoming commanders of the Indo-Pacific Command that China’s momentum toward a move against Taiwan is accelerating.

Outgoing Adm. Phil Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month that China is “developing systems, capabilities and a posture that would indicate that they’re interested in aggression.” Their intention to take Taiwan could “become manifest in the next six years.”

His replacement at the Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. John Aquilino, testified that Beijing could act against Taiwan even earlier: “My opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think.” 

Milley was much more sanguine than either of the Navy leaders who have seen China’s capabilities and declared intentions up close, and whose naval and air forces would be America’s first line of defense. Asked if he agreed with the admirals’ dire assessments, Milley responded: “What Davidson and Aquilino and others have said is that Chinese capability to invade and seize the island of Taiwan is being accelerated to 2027, six years from now. I don’t dismiss that at all. What I said was near term — in my definition, that’s one to two years — I don’t see China, they could, they could make decisions, whatever they want to do, but I don’t see it happening right out of the blue.”

Milley reasoned that China presently lacks the capability to launch and sustain a full-scale invasion of the main island of Taiwan. “There’s no reason for it. The cost of China far exceeds the benefit and President Xi and his military would do the calculation. They know that an invasion, in order to seize an island that big with that many people and the defense capabilities the Taiwanese have, would be extraordinarily complicated and costly.”

Milley seems to discount other scenarios, such as the one envisioned by retired Adm. James Stavridis. He wrote in April that, at least in the near term, China’s aggression against Taiwan is more likely to be “a lightning strike that involves establishing sea control around Taiwan, then using lighter-footprint operations. This might be done by inserting Special Forces, connecting them to ‘sleeper cells’ of commandos already on the island, gaining control of airfields, and airlifting in a powerful military force. Simultaneously, they would use the surface-to-surface missiles and air power to decimate Taiwan’s air-defense systems. The Taiwanese could hold their own for a period of time, but eventually be overwhelmed.”

Few, if any, of those preparations would be easily evident far in advance — except for the task of establishing sea control around Taiwan. In the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, all it took to keep two U.S. battle groups out of the Strait was for China to threaten “a sea of fire.” One Clinton administration official likened the experience to “our own Cuban missile crisis; we had stared into the abyss.” China’s preparations to repeat that trauma are manifested in the capabilities it has amassed since then — a fleet of attack submarines and a massive cache of anti-ship ballistic missiles — accompanied by threats to “sink an aircraft carrier or two and kill 5,000 to 10,000 American sailors.”   

A scaled-down Chinese campaign could be carried out more swiftly and less frontally than an amphibious assault. Rather than attempting to take Taiwan in one fell swoop, China instead might seize one of Taiwan’s offshore islands initially. It would hold and militarize it while the international community absorbs the new reality, and then advance to the next phase. That is how Russia took Crimea and parts of Georgia and eastern Ukraine while undeterred from threatening its subsequent moves. 

Milley’s postulating of a grand Normandy-type Chinese invasion of Taiwan proper distorts his stated assessment of a) the capabilities China would need to take action, b) the transparency of its level of preparedness, c) its strategic intentions, and d) the timing of a possible attack.

“If Admiral Aquilino and Admiral Davidson said that China had an intent, has made a decision, and they intend to invade and seize Taiwan, then I do disagree with that,” he testified. “I’ve seen no evidence of that actual intent or decision-making. What I’m talking about is capability.”

Yet, later in his testimony, Milley expressed no doubt about China’s intentions toward Taiwan.  “I think the issue of Taiwan and the unification of Taiwan with mainland China, I think that is a core. I said it before in previous testimony — C-O-R-E, a core national security interest of China.” China’s 2005 Anti-Secession Law explicitly authorizes the use of “non-peaceful means” if Taiwan will not voluntarily accept imposition of communist dictatorship.

Fortunately, Milley quickly added, “It’s also a core national security interest of the United States to ensure that whatever happens, with respect to Taiwan, happens peacefully and we don’t have a general conflict in the region or globally. We support, with the Taiwan Relations Act, et cetera, for a peaceful resolution of the issue between Taiwan and China.”

The lingering problem, however, has been Washington’s unwillingness, under administrations of both parties, to make emphatically clear to Beijing that it will defend that core interest by defending Taiwan against Chinese aggression. All three admirals questioned the wisdom of continuing the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity, and Milley did not use the stronger language of a “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has frequently uttered. 

“[W]e have a serious commitment to Taiwan being able to defend itself. We have a serious commitment to peace and security in the western Pacific. We stand behind those commitments. And in that context, it would be a serious mistake for anyone to try to change that status quo by force,” Blinken said in April.

Milley’s understanding of Chinese capabilities and intentions — which adds confusion to ambiguity — was echoed by his fellow witness, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. If it is more reflective of Biden administration thinking than the views of the present and previous Indo-Pacific commanders, and if the Biden defense budget does not measure up to China’s military challenge, the commitments Blinken affirmed will continue to be clouded with doubt — most importantly in the minds of Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his colleagues.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

Tags Antony Blinken China aggression Cross-Strait relations Lloyd Austin Mark Milley Political status of Taiwan Politics of Taiwan

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