The American Legion Magazine
October 2000
Alan W. Dowd

            The “trade uber alles” caucus in Washington promises us that Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China will empower its one billion citizens, undermine its dictatorship, close its laogai slave labor camps and ease the tensions it has wrought throughout Asia – all while making American companies a ton of cash.

            But with Beijing in the midst of the greatest military buildup on earth – a buildup aimed at reclaiming Taiwan in the short-term and challenging America in the long-term – our leaders might want to consider history before they continue down this path.

“History shows us,” writes Paul Johnson in his weighty survey of the 20th century, Modern Times, “the truly amazing extent to which intelligent, well-informed and resolute men, in the pursuit of economy or in an altruistic passion for disarmament, will delude themselves about realities.”[1]

To illustrate his point, he cites not Chamberlain, the patron saint of appeasement, but Churchill, the redoubtable foe of Hitler and Stalin. Asked in 1924 to give an assessment on the possibility of Japan attacking Britain’s Pacific possessions, Churchill concluded, “I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime.”[2] Japan would sweep into British Malaya, Hong Kong and Thailand on a single day 17 years later.

            Today, as then, thoughtful people are deluding themselves about reality.

Reality Check. The reality is China has 16 territorial disputes with 10 different countries. Its territorial ambitions are no secret, and its leaders have often resorted to military force to sate those ambitions. Indeed, as the Pentagon’s recent report on the Chinese military warns, “China’s resolve to employ military force should not be discounted.”[3]

And history shows why: In the 1950s, China seized Tibet, invaded Korea, and bombed the Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu.In the 1960s, it turned west, attacking India, and north, invading the Soviet Union’s Damansky Island.In the 1970s, China gobbled up the Paracel Islands and invaded Vietnam.In the 1980s, Beijing invaded India for a second time and took Vietnam’s Spratly Islands.

And in the 1990s, amid the most open period of U.S.-China trade in 60 years, Beijing swung its military sights back to Taiwan with waves missile tests that effectively blockaded the democratic island, a fusillade of demands that invoked memories of Austria’s pre-World War I ultimatums on Serbia and a nuclear-tipped warning for America.

        These reckless forays into foreign lands and international waters are linked to more than national pride. China is hamstrung with a petroleum deficit of 600,000 barrels a day. To make up that deficit, Beijing is banking on armed forces, not market forces:

        Thanks to a 314-percent increase in military spending over ten years, Beijing is buying up sophisticated Russian warplanes, acquiring a blue-water navy, developing anti-satellite weapons and stealing or purchasing technologies that have enabled it to leap 20 years forward in missile development.[4]

Empire in the Making. China wants an empire of its own, and its leaders don’t want to ask Washington for permission.

With the humiliation of Iraq and Serbia fresh in their minds, China’s leaders know that a military with a truly global reach is the only thing that gives America pause. Through their buildup and espionage, they are essentially seeking to defeat their enemies without fighting them, or as the Pentagon concludes, “to achieve a military solution before outside powers [can] intervene militarily.”

Taiwan provides a chilling illustration of this strategy. For a half-century, the Taiwan Straits and a vaguely worded document known as the Taiwan Relations Act have protected Taiwan from invasion. But those deterrents are growing increasingly ineffective against the Mainland.

Washington has sat silent during China’s temper tantrums and war games so long that Beijing has good reason to doubt America’s commitment to the island. And the sea no longer provides any real protection to Taiwan. Pentagon analysts have concluded that China could use airborne assaults and short-range missiles to achieve many of the objectives of an amphibious landing. 

Indeed, historian Paul Braken argues that with just 45 missiles, “China could virtually close Taiwan’s ports, airfields, waterworks and power plants.” To hold onto Taiwan, China could then use its medium-range missiles to blackmail the countries that host America’s forward-deployed bases. According to Braken, Beijing could lob “several hundred missiles, perhaps several thousand” at the U.S. bases and ships that dot the Pacific.[5]

            Should that fail to deter us, Beijing can always brandish its long-range nuclear missiles, as Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai did in 1995 when he ominously reminded America that Chinese missiles can strike Los Angeles. The People’s Liberation Army repeated that threat in February of this year.

History Lesson. We’ve been here before. Three times in the last century alone, empires emerged that threatened America’s very existence. It wasn’t trade bills that staved off those empires – in one form or another, it was conflict.

The nature of the conflict we will wage against China is still largely up to us. We, too, can defeat our enemies without fighting them on the battlefield – but only if we learn from history.

Seeking out natural resources and an empire to supply them, Japanese armies swept through East Asia like locusts in the 1930s. Any doubts about Tokyo’s true intentions were put to rest in December 1937, when Japanese soldiers murdered 300,000 Chinese civilians in Nanking. During the killing frenzy, Japanese bombers sank the USS Panay in Chinese waters, strafing its surviving crew for good measure. They also attacked four British gunboats during the raid.

            But rather than standing up to the Japanese, Washington averted its gaze and crossed its fingers. Four years later, when those same Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor, it was too late to avert a full-blown war. The smoldering hulk of the USS Arizona would announce to the world what Washington should have known a decade earlier and what Churchill dismissed as an impossibility – Japan posed a dire threat to the world.

            While Washington appeased Japan, London appeased Germany. Hitler’s unchallenged rearmament led to his seizure of the Rhineland, which led to his bold takeover of Austria, which led to Munich, where Chamberlain gave him Czechoslovakia in 1938. Within a year, World War II was underway.

Cold War or World War? Invoking those hard-learned lessons, a wiser Churchill would outline a new response to the 20th century’s last empire. “There is nothing they admire so much as strength,” he said of the Soviets in 1946. And so, in stark contrast to the previous decade, alliances were forged, arsenals built, lines drawn.

Berlin would be the proving ground. There, the Soviet empire pushed and probed, just as Japan and Germany had done a decade earlier. And the world watched and waited. For forty years, it watched America protect a tiny island of freedom in the middle of Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. For forty years, it waited for Washington and London to give up. But this time, it was the aggressor who surrendered.

China and America stand at another crossroads in history – a moment not unlike the Panay incident, Munich conference or Berlin crisis. Whether or not Beijing chooses to follow the path taken by its imperial mentors is something over which we have little control. But whether Taiwan becomes this generation’s Berlin or its Czechoslovakia is still our choice.

It shouldn’t be a difficult one to make. A second cold war would be far less costly than a third world war.

[1]Paul Johnson, Modern Times, p.175.


[3]Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of China, June 2000.

[4]Robert Sutter, “China’s Rising Military Power and Influence,” CRS Report, 1996.

[5]Paul Braken, “America’s Maginot Line,” The Atlantic Monthly, December 1998.