It was recently announced that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will visit China next month. The trip seems to be a very positive sign that Sino-U.S. military dialogues are back on track after stalling nearly a year over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Gates had planned to visit earlier this June, but was rejected by Beijing amidst a routine show of indignation that also included severing all military exchanges and placing sanctions on companies involved with the sales.
Now both sides are acting like that’s all water under the bridge. But what both countries’ leadership must know, but are publically ignoring, is that U.S. arms sales to Taiwan WILL happen again. There’s a treaty agreement that compels them to happen. The U.S. has regularly sold weapons to Taiwan since 1949 and will probably do so again as early as next spring.
When that happens, Chinese leaders will undoubtedly throw a fit like they always do. The U.S. will be opposed, blasted, decried, and/or rapped by Beijing; the media will rile up the Chinese people by acting as if the sales came as some unthinkable shock; and whatever progress the military dialogues have made will promptly be dismantled. So why does Gates even bother?
Certainly military-to-military dialogue is important between the world’s two greatest military powers. Transparency and mutual -reassurance between the nations goes a long way toward insuring long-term peace. Ideally, they would continue uninterrupted…especially through times of strong political conflict. But that’s not Beijing’s style.
Taking a hard stance on political issues like weapons sales to Taiwan is practically a necessity. Chinese leaders don’t want Taiwan getting the weapons, sure…but the harsh retaliations are more to sustain support from Chinese citizens who’ve had a highly defensive attitude over Taiwan molded into them since birth. China must punish, or at least appear to punish, anyone who threatens their sovereignty.
In this case, cutting off dialogues with the U.S. military is an obvious choice. They have a direct hand in the issue and the talks are something Beijing has clear power over. So why don’t Gates and the U.S. military acknowledge that these dialogues are just occasional short-term charades and give up on them?
For one, letting Beijing cancel the talks makes them look like the bad guy. But even more importantly, if there were no talks for Chinese leaders to walk out on, Beijing would have to find some other way to punish the U.S.
Earlier this year Japan arrested a Chinese ship captain in the Diaoyu Islands, seriously challenging China’s sovereignty claims over them. Chinese leaders were furious, but there was no clear target to retaliate against. China doesn’t have military exchanges with Japan, so they lashed out in other ways. They stopped rare earth shipments and cancelled a trip of Japanese school children scheduled to visit the Shanghai Expo.
The situation was similar when Liu Xiaobo was granted the Nobel Peace Prize by the independent five-person Nobel Committee. China had no way to retaliate against those five individuals so they resorted to measures like calling-off scheduled meetings with Norwegian leaders and even cancelling a Norwegian musical that was scheduled to play in Beijing and Wuhan.
So the usually short-lived Sino-U.S. military exchanges do have strategic significance, but not so much in terms of mutual reassurance or military transparency. More in terms of being a bone that the U.S. can throw to Chinese leaders in a few months when Taiwan arms sales inevitably resume.
The U.S. will temporarily lose something fairly innocuous that’s never really yielded substantive results anyways; and Chinese leaders get to look tough to their people, but don’t disrupt the fragile economic relationship with the U.S. over something they know they can’t prevent.