Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks during a March 31, 2023, interview with Defense One's Kevin Baron.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks during a March 31, 2023, interview with Defense One's Kevin Baron. Defense One

‘Lower the Rhetoric’ on China, Says Milley

We’re not on the “brink of war” with China, and Taiwan is not so easy to conquer, says the top U.S. general.

Watch Kevin Baron's interview with Gen. Mark Milley, part of Defense One's State of Defense series, here.

Everyone needs to calm down about war with China, Gen. Mark Milley said on Friday.  

The Joint Chiefs chairman warned against the rise of “overheated” rhetoric of a looming U.S. war with China, and he said he doubts China’s chances of “conquering” Taiwan. But, he added, the United States should continue to quicken arms shipments to the self-governing nation and its own military capabilities, just in case.

Following this year’s Chinese balloon scare, the China heat is on. In the last two weeks, members of Congress in hearings aimed a list of concerns about China—everything from nuclear weapons to computer chips, invading Taiwan, and allying with Russia—at Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Milley has taken to telling lawmakers that war with China—and Russia—is “not imminent or inevitable.” It’s part of an effort to lower the heat, he said.

“I think there's a lot of rhetoric in China, and a lot of rhetoric elsewhere, to include the United States, that could create the perception that war is right around the corner or we’re on the brink of war with China,” Milley said in an interview with Defense One

“And that could happen. I mean, it is possible that you could have an incident or some other trigger event that could lead to uncontrolled escalation. So, it's not impossible. But I don't think at this point I would put it in the likely category,” said Milley. “And I think that the rhetoric itself can overheat the environment.”

Still, Milley said he agrees with calls for the United States to send arms into Taiwan as quickly as possible, to beat China’s Xi Jinping to any punch.

Xi has said he wants the People’s Liberation Army armed and ready to take Taiwan by force, if necessary, by 2027. “So if you think about it, that's only four years away,” Milley said. “So, one of the elements of deterrence is to make sure that your opponent knows that the cost exceeds the benefit. So, for Taiwan, we've—my guess is we've got three or four years to get Taiwan in a position where they will create the perception in the minds of the Chinese decision makers that the cost exceeds that.”  

Milley said Taiwan needs air defense, anti-ship cruise missiles, and anti-ship mines. But he said the island itself, its population of 23 million—including 170,000 active duty military and 1-to-2 million reserves,—and China’s lack of experience make a takeover unlikely. “It favors the defense. It would be a very difficult island to capture,” he said.

“For the Chinese to conduct an amphibious and airborne operation to seize that island—to actually seize it?—That's a really difficult operation. But Xi put the challenge out there, and we'll see where it goes.”

Fears of a China-Russia alliance are also premature, Milley indicated. “We want to have a geostrategic approach that does not drive Russia and China into each other's arms to form an actual military alliance,” he said. “There's some indications that this conversation is ongoing. But that's a whole lot different than actual alliances and military lines.”

In the meantime, Milley said, “I think it's incumbent upon us, the United States, to make sure that we have an incredibly powerful military that is capable,” that China knows it, and that China believes the U.S. will use it if necessary. 

Instead of how the China threat is discussed today, he said, “I’d prefer to go back to what Teddy Roosevelt said, which is, you know, ‘speak softly, carry a big stick’ sort of thing. So: Have our military really, really strong [and] lower the rhetoric a little bit with the temperature.” 

Milley likes to cite history, and on China he argues that Marxism and determinism points to a foreboding future. “My understanding and my analysis of China is that at least their military, and perhaps others, have come to some sort of conclusion that war with the United States is inevitable. I think that's a very dangerous thing.”

“I don't believe war is inevitable. I don't think it's imminent. But I do think that we need to be very, very pragmatic and cautious going forward. And we will reduce the likelihood of war if we remain really, really strong, relative to China, and China knows that we have the will to use it, if necessary.”

“I just think that it needs to be a little bit more realistic and a little bit less, perhaps, emotional, I suppose. But also on the China side…I just think, for us, the United States, approach this with some steely-eyed, cold-eyed realism. Get the military up to the level of dominance relevant to China, in all the domains. And if they know that, and they know we have a will to use it, then you're probably gonna deter them more from the start.”