Chinese generals rattle sabers at U.S. on war over Taiwan

Chinese generals took aim at the U.S. military on Monday with blunt warnings that foreign forces in a war to take Taiwan will be crushed, but they also held out the prospect of ending a lengthy boycott on direct military-to-military talks with the Pentagon.

People’s Liberation Army Gen. Zhang Youxia, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, said Monday in Beijing that the PLA will “show no mercy” in dealing with attempts by the U.S. or Taiwanese forces to seek independence from the mainland.

“No matter who wishes to separate Taiwan from China in any way, the Chinese military will never agree to it,” Gen. Zhang said. In a veiled reference to the United States, he said “some countries” are working to subvert the Chinese system.

Gen. Zhang also hinted that the PLA might end its 15-month refusal to engage in talks and exchanges with the U.S. military. The boycott was sparked by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s high-profile visit to Taiwan in the summer of 2022.

A second PLA general, Lt. Gen. He Lei, told state media at the conference that a PLA war on Taiwan would be “legitimate” and “just.”

“Once the Chinese government is forced to use force to resolve the Taiwan question, it will be a war for reunification, a just and legitimate war supported and participated by the Chinese people, and a war to crush foreign interference,” Gen. He told CGTN television.

President Biden has said several times that the U.S. military would intervene to defend Taiwan against a Chinese military attack.

The generals made the comments Monday in Beijing during the Xiangshan Forum, an annual conference on international military diplomacy featuring senior military leaders from the region.

The meeting included hundreds of defense and military representatives from across the region and around the world, and Chinese officials said some 90 countries were represented.

Xiangshan, or Fragrant Hills, is the section west of Beijing where the PLA’s underground command center and offices are located.

The Pentagon, in keeping with precedent, sent no senior civilian or military leader to the meeting.

Instead, Cynthia Carras, a China policy specialist in the office of the secretary of defense, took part. Ms. Carras met briefly with Sr. Col. Wu Qian, the Defense Ministry spokesman, during the forum, according to a social media post linked to the state-run broadcaster CCTV.

Gen. Zhang’s statement signals a potential reversal of China’s position in June at Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the region’s leading defense forum that brought together minister-level participants.

At that time, the Chinese military officials refused to meet with their U.S. counterparts. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, however, hailed a handshake with then-Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu during a dinner as progress in the effort to resume communications.

Gen. Li was absent from the Beijing defense forum. He was recently dismissed from his post after disappearing from public view for several weeks, though no reason was given for his firing and no replacement has been named.

Gen. Zhang, as the CMC vice chairman, outranks Gen. Li, who was not in the PLA chain of command. The current CMC chairman is President Xi Jinping.

Gen. Zhang, like others in the PLA hierarchy, is said to be close to Mr. Xi. His father and Mr. Xi’s father are believed to have been friends; thus, Gen. Zhang joins a group that is the trusted inner circle within the party.

Resetting relations

Resuming direct military-to-military contacts with Beijing is a key goal of the Biden administration in its efforts to reset relations, which plunged to a new low early this year.

Gen. Zhang said the PLA would resume talks with military and defense counterparts “on the basis of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation.”

The PLA leader called for an immediate cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war, reflecting China’s official stance on the conflict.

Gen. He, a senior official at the Academy of Military Sciences, also suggested that talks with the U.S. military could resume and called relations with Washington extremely important.

Gen. He said that, before talks could resume, “the United States must resolutely correct any behavior that interferes with China’s internal affairs and undermines China’s core interests, especially when it comes to the Taiwan question and the South China Sea issue.”

The United States must “correct its wrongdoings” and provide assurances that the U.S. military will not interfere in China’s internal affairs, he said.

Analysts voiced mixed views of the offer for renewed military talks. Some said the general’s comment was a necessary attempt to resume dialogue to lower tensions.

Others warned that the Chinese military has used military-to-military contacts in the past as a trap to try to influence American policy, leveraging war fears as a way to force U.S. concessions in support of Beijing’s policies.

“The Americans, for a long while, have been frustrated and concerned about being lowballed by the PLA and want to talk to people with proper operational authority,” said Alex Neill, an expert on the PLA and a fellow at the Pacific Forum.

“Within the Chinese system, it will take a while to reappoint a formal defense minister, so there is a window of opportunity for the U.S. military establishment to engage at a level they have been hoping for, and Zhang would be one of the key people they have wanted to talk to.”

The need to talk

Alex Gray, a former China policy hand at the White House National Security Council, said China has exploited the Pentagon’s desire for military talks.

China “plays to Washington’s unending bias for talk for talk’s sake by dangling mil-to-mil whenever it suits them,” said Mr. Gray, now with the American Foreign Policy Council.

“The reality of 20-plus years of U.S.-China relations is that mil-to-mil fails to reduce Chinese malign activity in reality while inculcating a false sense of security in Washington,” he said.

The Biden administration should resist the call for military talks and instead focus on key issues in the U.S.-China relationship, such as bolstering deterrence in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, Mr. Gray said.

Mr. Neill said the Chinese generals are not only military men but also Chinese Communist Party cadres beholden to the party structure.

Gen. Zhang’s offer of talks “is boilerplate and is decidedly nebulous but probably opens the opportunity for dialogue,” he said.

Tensions remain high between the Chinese and U.S. militaries.

The Pentagon recently published its annual report on the Chinese military, which showed significant increases in weapons, including a major expansion of nuclear arms and a strategy under Mr. Xi calling for achieving superpower status.

Days before the publication, senior Pentagon and military officials disclosed a Chinese military program of dangerous harassment of U.S. and allied aircraft over the South China Sea and East China Sea.

China’s cutoff of military talks included canceling meetings at U.S.-China forums set up to discuss incidents at sea or in the air and for talks and exchanges that the Pentagon hopes will build trust between the two militaries.

China has challenged U.S. freedom of navigation operations by Navy warships in the South China Sea that Beijing has declared its maritime territory and the U.S. side insists is an international waterway.

Mr. Neill said the 2001 aerial collision between a Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft and Chinese jet highlighted the need for better military communications.

During that incident, “it was three days before any channel of communications between China and the U.S. was established,” he recalled.

“That was a very worrying time when Washington did not know if Beijing would escalate or would seek conditions,” he said. “There was a dreadful silence, and they literally clammed up. It was incredibly unnerving for the White House and the Pentagon.”

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