Becoming a superpower and acting like one are two very different things, as the beloved Chinese seem keen to demonstrate again. In the face of the U.S. administration preparing a major arms sale to Taiwan, Beijing reacts outraged and threatens all kinds of things, most notably the suspension of direct military talks between the United States and the People's Republic. "Rather than working with China to consolidate and expand the positive growth of bilateral military ties, the United States again announced its plan to sell arms to Taiwan, which will create severe obstacles for normal military-to-military exchanges," opined Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng. (By the way, one really has to admire how Xinhua can give a fully biased picture without blinking once)
Its not that the Chinese government should not raise its concerns. But the constant outrage displayed over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is becoming preposterous. One might very well argue that the selling of arms to Taipei is tantamount to meddling in China's internal affairs, but then again, the Taiwanese are enjoying a freedom that is under constant siege. The latest Pentagon report on China found that between 1200 and 1400 ballistic missiles are currently aimed at Taiwan, while 400.000 soldiers and 500 fighter jets are positioned in the military districts on the Chinese side of the Taiwan-strait. Most importantly, the reports conclude consistently that the military balance in the Taiwan-strait is tilting in favour of the Chinese. The U.S. arms sale is not going to alter that trend, so its not that big of a deal in strategic terms.
But being a superpower is also about understanding your rivals. And the U.S. does not have that much of a choice. Ever since 1979 the U.S. administration is legally obligated to help the Taiwanese to defend themselves. Not that will ever come to that, hopefully. But all politics is local and the Chinese regime could at least try to understand the constraints placed upon the administration. But that is not to say the Obama administration could not handle the situation better. The Bush administration cleared the way in its relationship with China in the first year of being in office, pushing through a major arms package and leaving it with seven years in which it could focus on Beijing. That earned Bush rare praise even from liberals like Fareed Zakaria.
The Chinese attitude is all lovely for a moment but using the military-to-military dialogue to voice its concerns with Washington is simply immature for one single reason: The expanding Chinese military is inexperienced in operations outside its own territory. Chinese aircraft and PLAN submarines are now encountering American Navy vessels and U.S. military aircraft more often than at any other time. The close passes of American and Chinese aircraft increase the likelihood of lethal incidents like the Hainan island incident. The military-to-military dialogue is becoming more important in that context and is turning into an indispensable instrument in trying to avoid bilateral tensions emanating from such incidents. Beijing should start looking for a different pressure valve or else it will remain an immature superpower.