Thinking about Robert Gates’s current visit to Beijing, where he just concluded a decidedly unpleasant encounter with China’s defense minister, Liang Guangjie (see below), I looked up an interview I conducted last year with Selig Harrison, a sage observer of Asia at the Center for International Policy. Here’s part of what he said, concerning the conflict between the United States and China over the breakaway island nation of Taiwan:

“One thing that is completely not understood by American decision-makers is the importance of the Taiwan issue in US relations with China on all things. The significant of the Taiwan issue is that Taiwan was taken away from China by Japan in the Sino-Japanese war, so it’s a symbol of the humiliation of the past, and so reunification at whatever pace is sine qua non of China’s emergence as a centralized state. So it’s a big issue for China’s nationalists, and it’s a real issue. So therefore the US policy of arming Taiwan, and the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, is viewed by China as postponing any possible reunification because we are emboldening the people in Taiwan who want to remain separate or formally independent not to move in the direction of some compromise…. We’ll never get China to behave economically on key issues like the currency peg and their position in the future on holding our securities if we continue to fuck them on Taiwan. They really take this seriously. It’s the number one strategic issue, and they bring it up constantly. It’s the mainstream Chinese attitude.

“All US policy can do is to work for better relations more constructive relations. We can’t have those if we don’t change our Taiwan arms sale policy.”

On Sunday, Gates reportedly stood “stone-faced” as Defense Minister Guangjie lectured him on Taiwan and other issues. “We hope that the US side will pay sufficient attention to the concerns of the Chinese side and take measure to gradually remove or reduce obstacles that stand in the way of our military-military relations.” By “concerns” and “obstacles,” of course, Guangjie meant: Taiwan. The defense minister also pointed out that China is decades behind the United States and other powers in military terms. “We cannot call ourselves an advanced military country,” he said. “The gap between us and advanced countries is at least two to three decades.”

The New York Times, which made the “stone-faced” reference, noted that Guangjie said flatly, when asked about US arms sales to Taiwan, “We are against it.” It is, he said, a direct challenge that could “severely damage China’s core interests.”

Interestingly, in advance of Gates’s visit, Aviation Week published an account of a war game that was recently conducted in Australia that proved that if it ever came to a shooting war over Taiwan, the United States is vastly outgunned. “The Americans would lose,” concluded Aviation Week:

“War gaming, including an extensive simulation by Rand, has shown that the US would generate a 6-1 kill ratio over Chinese aircraft, but the Americans would lose. Even if every US missile destroyed an opponent, there would still be enough surviving attackers to shred US tankers, command and control and intelligence-gathering aircraft, says Andrew Davies, program director for operations and capabilities, Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in an interview with Aviation Week.”

The person who helped organize the Australian war game said:

“The reason [the US] lost was because the Chinese sortie rates and persistence carried the day. Any American aircraft was operating out of Guam or Okinawa because the airfields in Taiwan were taken out in the first half hour [of the conflict]. So [US] time on station over the Strait is quite limited.”

But the fact that China might win an all-out showdown over Taiwan, a nightmare scenario, doesn’t mean that China is emerging as a threat to the United States. As Guangjie pointed out, China’s military is primitive compared to that of the United States. Still, on his way to China, Gates made sure to tell reporters traveling with him that he’s concerned over the Chinese military threat, and according to the Wall Street Journal he pledged that the United States will “match or exceed China’s military modernization program.” Last week the Pentagon announced plans to beef up several weapons systems specifically designed to counter China, including ship-based jamming technology, long range penetrating bombers, and better radar on F-15 fighters.

And The Weekly Standard, chiming in, declared that the United States must “do whatever is needed to maintain superiority in the Asia-Pacific region.”

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