To Deter Beijing, What the United States Says Matters

Last week, General Mike Minihan became the latest U.S. military official to offer a personal assessment as to when Chinese leader Xi Jinping might decide to invade Taiwan. “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025,” Minihan wrote in an internal memo that was leaked to NBC News.

While General Minihan’s comments were not intended for an external audience, they are only the latest in a string of public comments by senior Department of Defense (DOD) leaders making their own boutique assessments as to Xi Jinping’s thinking on Taiwan.

Former U.S. Indo-Pacific command chief admiral Phil Davidson testified to Congress in March 2021 that an invasion could occur “in the next six years.” That same month, his successor, Admiral John Aquilino, cryptically warned the Senate Armed Services Committee that a Chinese invasion was “much closer to us than most think.” Admiral Mike Gilday, the Chief of Naval Operations, estimated late last year that conflict with China over Taiwan could come by the end of 2022 or “potentially [in] a 2023 window.” 

The picture becomes even less clear when listening to the assessments of the two senior-most officials at the DOD. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, believes “it'll be some time before the Chinese have the military capability and they're ready to do it.” His boss, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, recently stated that he “seriously [doubts]” that an invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is “imminent.”

There are geopolitical issues where open debate, even among senior officials in the U.S. government and military, might well be healthy, even positive. Groupthink, as we’ve learned repeatedly in the past, can be dangerous. But when it comes to the prospect for war with China, the world’s second largest economy with a formidable military and a growing stockpile of nuclear weapons, the lack of coherence in messaging coming from the U.S. military not only undermines the credibility of public messaging and but it also erodes the United States’ ability send clear, precise, and credible deterrence signals Beijing.

For the sake of its deterrence of China and to ensure its credibility to key allies and partners, its time the United States begin speaking with one voice on the risk Beijing poses to Taiwan. 

Few doubt that Chinese leader Xi Jinping would like to fully and formally annex Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China (PRC). But Xi, like all previous leaders of the PRC, faces a critical question: at what sacrifice? For more than 70 years, Taiwan, the United States, and key actors in the international community have worked together to keep Beijing’s assessment of the potential cost of an invasion as unacceptably high.

But as the political scientist Robert Jervis wrote in a landmark 1982 article, “deterrence depends on perceptions.” To ensure that current and future Chinese leaders continue to see an invasion as existentially risky, it is imperative that they continue to perceive the United States’ resolve and credibility as unimpeachable.

The lack of coherence in U.S. assessments of China’s ambitions and timelines in the Taiwan Strait undermines this goal.

First, these conflicting messages send a signal to Beijing, and the rest of the world, that the United States does not, in fact, possess clear and compelling intelligence about Xi’s intentions. If it did, then the spectrum of assessments would be in a much tighter cluster. As we saw in the lead-up to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, when U.S. intelligence warns (correctly) that a Russian attack is certain and imminent, the reliability of public statements matters greatly. If we do see Beijing mobilize for war, the United States will need every ounce of its credibility to form and hold in place an international response.

Second, the more alarmist warnings about an imminent Chinese invasion are not being matched by the corresponding behavior one would expect if war is on the near horizon. If there is credible evidence that the PLA is actively planning to invade Taiwan in the next two years, as General Minihan seems to be indicating, then the entire U.S. government and military should be mobilizing at a speed and scale not seen since World War II. It is not, and that likely indicates that the recent statements about an impending Chinese invasion are not widely shared within the U.S. government. Further, the discrepancy between statements and actions signals to many that these are not genuine warnings, but rather attempts to focus congressional and public attention. But again, this simply dilutes the potency of future pronouncements. 

Finally, recent comments about the imminence of a Chinese attack serve as inadvertent propaganda—and budget rationale—for the PLA. The picture being painted of the PLA is of a military force possessing fearsome fighting abilities and an unrepentant resolve to take Taiwan. Instead of deflating the morale and perceived capabilities of the PLA, the United States is inflating it.

If the United States wants to deter China, its words and actions must be working in the same direction. It should continue to invest in its own military capabilities, support Taiwan as it hardens its defenses, and continue to build a coalition of allies and partners who are invested in regional peace and stability.

At the same time, it must find better message discipline. If there is a growing consensus that Beijing is moving to escalate or even attack Taiwan, such warnings should be clear, credible, and come from a limited number of authorized channels. The stakes are just too high for anything less.

Jude Blanchette is the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ryan Hass is a senior fellow and the Michael H. Armacost Chai and the Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies at the Brookings Institution.

Ryan Hass

Senior Fellow and the Michael H. Armacost Chai and the Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies, the Brookings Institution