In Washington, politicians and pundits alike are debating how to understand and react to the white paper released on Feb. 21 by Beijing. And even in China, there seems to be some discussion on how to interpret the verbal missile lobbed at the United States, Taiwan and Japan.

Some scholars in the U.S. have argued that Beijing really did little more than restate long-established positions on why the mainland might go to war to recover Taiwan. Others, including members of the Congress, have interpreted Beijing’s white paper as primarily intended for a domestic audience. Some Chinese have said that the white paper should be seen as little more than a reminder that the communist government will not exercise infinite patience.

The white paper must be read and interpreted on many levels, especially considering that it was followed a week later by an article in the People’s Liberation Army newspaper reminding Washington that Beijing can hit the U.S. with strategic missiles.

The white paper is clearly an appeal to nationalist sentiment. Chinese President Jiang Zemin took credit in the paper for U.S. President Bill Clinton’s agreement in 1998 to a formula suggested by Beijing that Taiwan could not join international organizations requiring statehood, and threw those words back at the president.

The white paper also accused Japan of joining a new, U.S.-led “containment alliance structure” directed against China, a reference to Washington’s consideration of theater missile defenses for Japan and South Korea.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Beijing knows quite well that its own use of missiles as a form of coercion focused the hand of Washington and its allies. Beijing knows well that TMD is defensive in nature. And Beijing knows quite well that Japan’s Constitution will not permit participation in any form of collective defense or multinational alliance.

In fact, the U.S. and Japan would do well to reinforce the mutual defense treaty with a strong commitment to each other through joint research on theater missile defenses. After all, the U.S. has put its own population at risk through its commitment to the defense of Japan. Mutual commitment should be viewed as a grand bargain between the U.S. and Japan in pursuit of security and stability in Asia.

The truth is that Beijing started a missile buildup years before Congress directed the study of TMD for Asia. The People’s Liberation Army’s own planning runs years in advance of the fielding of new weapon systems. It is more likely that Beijing saw the value of Iraq’s use of missiles during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and realized that, lacking the capacity to invade Taiwan, the PLA should adopt a strategy of intimidation by “standoff warfare.”

The truth is that regardless of TMD or its eventual success and deployment, Beijing would have deployed its missiles anyway. And the truth is that these missiles threaten not only Taiwan, but Japan and South Korea, as well as U.S. forces deployed there.

Looking at Taiwan, the white paper can be seen as a means to focus the attention of Taiwanese voters on Taipei’s mainland policy. Instead of concentrating on other important domestic issues like education, the transportation infrastructure and political reforms, Taiwanese voters have considered which candidate will have the most effective mainland policy. Interestingly, as in 1996, Beijing’s actions appear to have made a policy of maintaining the status quo the preferred response to the white paper.

From a domestic standpoint in China, coming on the eve of the National People’s Congress and on the heels of a visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the white paper gave the appearance of a strong Jiang standing up to a weak U.S. administration that had already pressured Taiwan to negotiate and that had ignored its allies.

In fact, the article in the PLA newspaper, published by an army officer assigned to China’s National Defense University, was also a slap at two U.S. military officers. One, the current U.S. ambassador in Beijing, Joseph Prueher, had deployed two aircraft carriers off Taiwan in 1996. Prueher was in Washington lobbying the U.S. Congress not to pass the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act when the threat of missiles against the U.S. was published. The other officer, Pacific Commander Adm. Dennis Blair, was beginning a visit to China. Thus Beijing appeared strong.

Beijing’s actions may have damaged the chances of early passage of the permanent normal-trade relations necessary to let the U.S. take advantage of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. But Beijing had probably concluded that its failure to reach an agreement on WTO access with the European Union precluded passage of permanent normal-trade relations in the U.S. Ironically, Beijing’s threats of force may have advanced the agenda in Congress of the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, providing the necessary number of votes for passage.

Jiang needed to make some show of resistance to the U.S. to keep the support of the PLA’s generals, active and retired. He needed to pressure Taiwan militarily without launching more missiles, which would have ensured passage of the TSEA and would have stiffened resolve in Japan, the U.S. and Taiwan to deploy theater missile defenses. And he needed come up with a formula that gave Tokyo pause, by invoking the image of collective defense if Japan deployed TMD. Thus, with one long document China took a calculated risk.

To place the risk in perspective, however, this was probably a rational choice. Running a major exercise would have resulted in the worse outcome. So I try to keep the white paper in perspective. When Beijing runs a television series on the PLA’s war-fighting capabilities this week, I’ll try to keep that in perspective, also. Because harsh words, articles by PLA officers and “virtual military exercises” on television are less risky than military actions by the PLA. In the end, though, the need for theater missile defenses in Asia doesn’t change. And a strong U.S.-Japan alliance remains the bedrock of security in the Asia-Pacific region.

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