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Direct superpower confrontation with China no longer seems a distant scenario

Business owner "Annie" weights down copies of the Chinese Daily News newspaper showcasing pictures of a suspected Chinese spy balloon, in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles on Sunday. The balloon's presence in the sky above the United States before a military jet shot it down over the Atlantic Ocean with a missile Saturday has further strained U.S. - China ties. Associated Press

Ominous signs are growing about the potential for direct military conflict between the United States and China. It’s not every day when a top military commander predicts in a memo that military confrontation could happen by 2025 with Beijing. But that’s exactly what Gen. Michael A. Minihan warned a few days ago. Minihan heads the U.S. Air Mobility Command headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, which helps remind folks in this region that, even though China is way over there, any talk of war can have major reverberations right here in the Midwest.

Some of the nation’s most crucial war-fighting forces are based near St. Louis. Scott is the command base for air logistics and refueling aircraft that would rapidly deploy in the advent of war. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s western headquarters is in the heart of St. Louis. And Whiteman Air Force Base is headquarters of the 509th Bomb Wing, home to the nation’s B-2 stealth bomber fleet and the same bomb wing responsible for the U.S. atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war with Japan in World War II.

War with China has been and probably remains an extremely remote possibility. But the threat looms ever larger, particularly after a Chinese intelligence balloon was discovered maneuvering in the skies above the northern United States. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a visit to Beijing because of it.

Tensions have escalated with China ever since its construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and subsequent construction of naval bases. China then began interfering with international shipping, claiming encroachment on sovereign Chinese territory.

New tensions are focused on China’s increasingly bold threats to take military action against Taiwan. The Biden administration is boosting military aid to Taiwan and forging tighter military ties with Japan and other Asian Pacific nations. The Philippines in January reached an agreement to restore the U.S. military presence there.

Against that backdrop, the Feb. 1 memo from Minihan takes on far more significance. Referring to Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, Minihan wrote: “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025. Xi secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022.” Minihan outlined specific schedules for his command staff to ramp up preparations in coming months, warning against complacency. “Go faster. Drive readiness, integration, and agility for ourselves and the Joint Force to deter, and if required, defeat China.”

The Pentagon distanced itself from the memo, but all the other preparations and China’s balloon episode speak to a scenario belying any talk of calm and cordial diplomacy. Unless cooler heads prevail, the threat of a direct superpower confrontation is looming closer to reality, meaning this region could well find itself right in the thick of it.

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