Gen. Milley’s Secret Calls to China: Smart or Dangerous?

September 21, 2021 Updated: September 21, 2021


The recent revelation that U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley telephoned and reassured his Chinese counterpart of no U.S. attack during and after the 2020 U.S. presidential election has raised critical questions about how both countries consider execute security policies.

For example, how and why would China’s leaders come to have such a fear? There were no extraordinary tensions or disputes between the two countries at the time. Certainly, Washington officials knew that China had formidable defense capacities that potentially could destroy much of America. No one of any significance in the United States was proposing or calling for war with China. Indeed, the United States had purposely delayed carrying out previously scheduled maneuvers specifically to avoid tensions and suspicions during the election campaign period. Virtually all Americans would have been surprised to know that China was fearful of a U.S. attack at the time. Moreover, on Oct. 29, 2020, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post published an article headlined, “American Troops Not Planning Attack on Chinese Territory.”

It seems that both journalistic hype and propaganda played important roles in creating confusion. On Sept. 24, 2020, Air Force Magazine ran a story on Agile Reaper, a military exercise carried out in California. The story focused on the integration of MQ-9 Reaper Drones into the exercise and included a comment by Lt. Colonel Brian Davis that the drones could be useful in places like the South China Sea. The story caught the attention of China’s state-operated Global Times, which coupled it with a U.S. State Department comment critique of Chinese actions in the South China Sea to say that “these messages brought to the surface a very ambitious American war plan.” The Global Times added that there was “speculation that the Trump administration might try to boost their reelection campaign by creating a military crisis.”

Since U.S. military exercises were, in fact, being postponed and slowed down at the time, the question must be asked as to whether China’s leaders were beginning to believe the propaganda of their own press organs. Was Beijing convincing itself that it should be afraid for no real reason? Is there a way for Beijing to obtain objective information unaffected by its own propaganda organs?

Another aspect of the situation that demands clarification is the question of who in the United States really has or should have the power to launch an attack on China or any other country. Under the official Constitution of the United States, the war-making power is reserved for the Congress. Legally, the president cannot decide to go to war without the approval of the Congress. Since the advent of the Korean War in 1950, this aspect of the Constitution has often been ignored. There was no Congressional declaration of war in the cases of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Libya, or Afghanistan. In view of this, China or any other country might rightfully be concerned about the actions of a president who may seem psychologically unstable.

By the same token, the official U.S. policy for making the decision to make a nuclear strike is unsettling. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has no legal role. He is an adviser to the president but not the commander of U.S. forces. The decision would be taken by the president in consultation with the secretaries of defense and state and the direct commanders of the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force. Gen. Milley would have no formal role in such a decision. Thus, he was overstepping his own organization by making phone calls to top military officials in China.

Epoch Times Photo
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Li Zuocheng (L) and U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley (C) review an honor guard during a welcome ceremony at the Bayi Building in Beijing on Aug. 16, 2016. (Mark Schiefelbein/AFP via Getty Images)

More importantly, however, the formal procedure for a presidential order of a nuclear strike makes no allowance for consultation with or approval by the U.S. Congress which, under the U.S. Constitution, is supposed to have the sole power to declare war. Clearly, this situation could be confusing to a foreign power.

Milley says he was prompted to make the calls because he had been informed that Chinese officials were afraid President Trump might order a military strike as a way of increasing his political support in the presidential election. But were Chinese officials really concerned or was Milley projecting his own private concerns about Trump’s behavior onto his Chinese counterparts?

The United States does, after all, have a procedure by which a sitting president can be prevented from exercising power. Under the 25th Amendment of the Constitution, the vice president and a majority of the cabinet can remove a sitting president from office if he/she is deemed unable to continue fulfilling the duties of the office. If Milley felt so strongly that the president was failing, he clearly did not have the agreement of Vice President Pence or a majority of the cabinet.

In the wake of this event, some people are now wondering if Milley is the one who should be removed from office.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Clyde Prestowitz is an Asia and globalization expert, a veteran U.S. trade negotiator, and presidential adviser. He was the leader of the first U.S. trade mission to China in 1982 and has served as an adviser to Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama. As counselor to the secretary of commerce in the Reagan administration, Prestowitz headed negotiations with Japan, South Korea, and China. His newest book is "The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership," which was published in January 2021.