Brief Weekend Update 28 Jan, 2023: USAF General Warns Of War With China In 2025

On Friday, General Mike Minihan, US Air Force sent a memorandum to the officers in his command and predicted the United States and China will be at war in two years. Minihan is the commander of Air Mobility Command, a large command with over 100,000 airmen and officers in it. In the memo, Minihan wrote “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me will fight in 2025.” He also urged his officers to start preparing now. Minihan points to 2024-25 as China’s window of opportunity since both the US and Taiwan will be holding presidential elections and presumably be distracted. To be fair, the purpose behind the memo was not to lay out a personal World War III scenario. Minihan pointed to the prospect of war breaking out twenty four to thirty six months from present as the motivation for command-wide preparations, planning and training. From the military side, Minihan’s memo comes across as sensible in that it urges AMC to prepare for conflict against a specific real world enemy in an area of the world where said enemy is presently flexing its military muscle and acting provocatively while contending with growing issues on its domestic front. Obviously, naming China as the likely opponent was sure to attract attention from the media.

 China will also undoubtedly have something to say about Minihan’s prediction in the coming days.

The Brewing Solomons Islands Scuffle

The United States has been sluggish in coming to terms with the growing relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the government of Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. To be blunt, the US, as well as Australia, have both been agonizingly slow in accepting the strategic ramifications China’s assertiveness in the Pacific. Taking advantage of a corrupt, power-hungry politician, China has signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in 2022, laying the foundation to establish a powerful foothold in the Solomons’. Despite the rather empty assurances of Sogavare that there will be no Chinese naval ships homeported in the Solomons, Australia and the United States are not taking chances. Canberra and Washington agree action is necessary to counter China in this region. The difficulty comes in determining what shape that action will take. As well as deciding if it will be unilateral or a joint endeavor.

For the time being, it appears the US is moving unilaterally and strictly on the diplomatic front. Earlier this month the US State Department informed Congress that an interim US embassy will soon be established in Honiara, the Solomons’ capital city. The incoming facility will be small and staffed by only two US diplomats and a handful of local employees. A permanent embassy is expected to be established in the coming years. According to the State Department, the Solomons’ have become a priority owing to China’s increasing influence there and in the area. A new US diplomatic presence in Honiara is viewed as the first step in countering China’s footprint in the Solomons’.

Frankly, this initial step is thin and ineffectual. With such a small staff, the interim US embassy’s reach and ability to influence the Sogavare government is going to be quite restricted. And the window of opportunity to counter Chinese influence there is a limited one. The Biden administration’s approach to this sensitive situation seems to be to handle it with kid’s gloves. Instead, it should be preparing for a diplomatic scuffle with Beijing in an area heavy with pro-American sentiment, despite the almost exclusively pro-China stance its national leader Manasseh Sogavare has adopted.

China and Russia To Join South Africa For Naval Exercises In February

The South African government today confirmed that joint naval exercises will take place off the country’s east coast next month involving South African, Russian, and Chinese naval units. The exercises will take place off of the South African ports of Durban and Richards Bay and are scheduled to take place from 17-26 February, 2023. The South African National Defense Force claims the war games are expected to “strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China.”

The timing of the exercise is questionable in the eyes of some opposition politicians in Pretoria. With Russia involved an increasingly bloody and protracted war in Ukraine, this doesn’t appear to be the proper time to welcome Russian warships to South Africa. In fact, despite the majority of South Africans opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the national government has been firmly in Moscow’s corner for the duration of the conflict. South Africa did not condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine, to the frustration of its Western allies.

For China and Russia, the exercises with South African forces will be mostly of symbolic value. Highlighting the growing reach and influence of a still fledgling power bloc anchored by Beijing and Moscow. The appearance of Chinese warships in the western reaches of the Indian Ocean certainly sends a message to China’s competitors about the reach and capabilities of the PLAN though. South Africa, on the other hand, stands to gain little as a nation-state. But for its embattled president Cyril Ramaphosa, the exercises offer an opportunity to shift attention away from his recent political difficulties and the country’s continuing economic misfortunes.

It’s Not Just Taiwan

Late last week and into the weekend China and the United States each had a carrier group training in the South China Sea. On Thursday the USS Nimitz carrier strike group entered the South China Sea to conduct exercises. Within a day of arriving, the Nimitz group was being shadowed by PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) vessels. China also dispatched the aircraft carrier Shandong and her escorts into the South China Sea shortly thereafter to conduct combat-oriented exercises. The move was undoubtedly in response to presence of the Nimitz group in a region which China increasingly claims as nothing less than territorial waters. The significance of the South China Sea to international trade is a main factor in the US 7th Fleet projecting a meaningful and consistent presence there.  

In a time where Western Pacific tensions are centered on Taiwan it is important to remind ourselves of the South China Sea’s importance to both the West and China. Beijing’s sweeping territorial claims there, its encroachment on islands claimed by its neighbors and the untapped natural resources beneath SCS waters make it clear China will not pump the brakes on its activities there. Add to the mixture the importance of the sea lanes there and it is clear that a crisis there, either by design or accident, could spiral out of control and lead to a major conflict.

Yet most Western and regional analysts continue pointing the finger at Taiwan as the main flash point in the region and the true objective of China’s designs. It hardly seems to be the case that China’s massive naval buildup in recent years is intended just to help bring about a successful conquest of Taiwan and nothing more. The Chinese strategic plan goes beyond Taiwan Strait and the island-nation south into the SCS and east to the First Island Chain. Eventually, the Chinese appetite will extend beyond these points and into the Indian Ocean and the waters of the Pacific beyond Philippines. Japan recognizes this to a degree, and it is assuredly one motivating factor present in Tokyo’s plans to enlarge the Japanese military.

The bottom line is that China’s strategic goals extend beyond Taiwan. The sooner the United States and its allies apply this to their plans for challenging China, the better. Long story short: It’s not only Taiwan we need to think seriously about.

Taiwan Seeks Germany’s Help To Maintain ‘Regional Order’

With a delegation of German lawmakers spending the week in Taiwan, President Tsai Ing-wen is has requested Germany’s assistance in maintaining the ‘regional order.’ The appeal came in a meeting today between Tsai and the Germans, taking advantage of Berlin reevaluating its ties with China in an attempt to lessen German dependence on the PRC. Taiwan’s leader also commented that recent cases of ‘authoritarian expansionism’ prove democracies must come together.

Tsai is clearly taking a page from the Ukraine playbook and is moving to rally Western democracies around Taiwan as tensions between the island-nation and China have risen dangerously over the last seven months. A reasonable step under the circumstances, yet also one that will not bring about comparable results for a variety of reasons. Foremost is the reality that many Western nations, especially those in Europe, lack the military power and diplomatic clout to play a significant part in maintaining the ‘regional order’ in the Western Pacific.  Put another way, these nations offer little which can be used to help deter China from moving aggressively beyond its borders.

Using Germany as an example, the Deutsche Marine is a navy intended for regional operations. It cannot operate more than one or two warships beyond North Atlantic on its own. In a coalition , Germany can provide a decent number of warships to a coalition task force. But again, being able to operate and possibly fight in the Western Pacific is a bridge too far for the Deutsche Marine. Transporting military equipment to Taiwan in a time of crisis would be no easier. Economically and diplomatically, Germany has few instruments it can bring to bear to help deter China from moving aggressively on Taiwan. As the recent signals out of Berlin indicate, the Germans are waking up to the unenviable position its presently in with regards to China and is determined to level the playing field. Until this begins to materialize, however, Germany is limited in what it can provide to help keep the peace and China at bay in the Western Pacific.