China Dodges Mark Milley Controversy, Warns Conflict Will Hurt Both Countries

A Chinese government official said he wasn't aware of the specifics surrounding top U.S. general Mark Milley's "secret" phone calls to Beijing, but warned that both countries stood to lose from confrontation.

Milley, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, twice went behind former President Donald Trump's back to make telephone contact with his opposite number in Beijing, the People's Liberation Army's Gen. Li Zuocheng, according to a new book slated for release in September.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that Milley's calls—first in October 2020 and again this January—were made to assure China's military leaders that the U.S. was not about to launch an attack, despite Trump's hardline posture in the final months of his presidency.

Asked about the backchannel conversations, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said on Thursday that he wasn't aware of the "specific situation."

"What I can tell you is that as permanent members of the UN Security Council and the world's two largest economies, China and the United States both stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation."

Washington and Beijing have been locked in serious geopolitical competition since the Trump administration, with senior Chinese officials describing bilateral relations as being in their worst state since formal diplomatic ties were established in 1979.

But prior to this week's reporting—based on the contents of Peril, a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa—it was never clear that one or both parties had considered an actual armed conflict, triggered intentionally or by accident, a realistic possibility.

According to the authors, Milley's decision to use established military-to-military channels of communication came after he learned of China's concerns that Trump might launch an attack. It is unclear what intelligence Beijing used to reach such an assessment.

America's most senior uniformed leader telephoned Li on October 30, 2020 before the presidential election and again on January 8, just two days after the world watched pro-Trump demonstrators storm Capitol Hill to object to Joe Biden's win.

On both occasions, Milley reportedly reassured Li that there would be no military miscalculations from the U.S. during the chaos. According to the book, he also promised to give China advance notice of any actual military strike—a charge that has led Republicans to call for Milley's resignation.

The Post's report said the January 8 call happened after Milley spoke with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who raised concerns about Trump's access to the U.S. nuclear codes.

Biden on Wednesday backed Milley and said he had "great confidence" in the military official.

Col. Dave Butler, spokesperson for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Milley's decision was in line with his "duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability."

Following the revelations, Trump described Milley as a "dumb***" and "nutjob." He said concerns that he was prepared to attack China were "fake news."

Peril, based on interviews with 200 sources, is due for release on Tuesday, September 21.

China Dodges Mike Milley Controversy
File: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley (R) listens while President Donald Trump speaks before a meeting with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on October 7, 2019. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images