The latest updates from inside the Beltway, via the Nelson Report.

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….Basic agreement that Beijing did not do a good job of coordinating message delivery between its politicals and its military, partly because the only real commingling takes place right at the very top, under President Hu.
The net became that while China feels it has consistently sent strong messages on the prime cause of all the difficulties, Taiwan arms sales, the appearance of muddle, (not just limited to when Foreign Minister Yang called the whole thing a “misunderstanding”, only to be contradicted the next day by his own Ministry) caused many experts, here and there, to rush around seeking clarity on the message, and the messenger.

Basic agreement that whatever the muddle in message sending, the method was ill-advised, and especially in the decision to ban the two minesweepers seeking refuge from a storm, really a bad idea, one contrary to a thousand years of naval practice around the world. It has potentially put at risk a decade of out-reach by the US Navy, and the Navy’s on-going demands for explanations will keep emotions flowing. (Of course, there are those who think that’s precisely what some PLA hard-liners want…)

Tibet?…agreement that while the Dalai Lama was part of the political angst being expressed, taking it out on the US Navy should be read as a very loud re-statement of unified Chinese concerns about Taiwan. So…coherent message badly delivered, is one basic lesson or conclusion. FYI, to date, the Chinese have cancelled requests for nine US ship visits, including a Christmas port call. Not to be outdone, the USN has apparently sent seven (7) ships through the Taiwan Strait since the minesweepers were turned away.

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As to the current specifics: Bush perhaps felt China should have long anticipated the Patriot-2 upgrade announcement, since it has been on the books since 2001, to be delayed for years by domestic Taiwanese politics; but, proof again that timing is everything in sex and politics, the actual announcement had two problems for the Chinese side which might better have been anticipated by the US:

First, President Hu’s performance on Taiwan at the 17th Party Congress was far milder than anyone here had expected…hence the immediate words of praise from President Bush. But…
Because Hu was relatively so restrained, to announce the PAC-2 so soon after almost certainly looked, to Beijing, like the “real response”, one pushed by DOD.

This mis-perception was likely reinforced by DOD Sec. Gates failure to give China a “heads up, the announcement is coming soon” when he was visiting…they remember, if we don’t, back to 1992 and “Poppa” Bush’s warning that he was selling Taiwan F-16’s (it being an election year, and jobs for Texas).

In fact, some analysts think the one Chinese Gates apparently did alert, Foreign Minister Yang, probably compounded Yang’s troubles with the PLA, and his critics, when all this blew up.
Here’s how one scholar here, with good contacts on both sides of the Pacific, sums up:

“The first arms sale notification went to Congress on Sept. 12. The Chinese cancelled all mil-mil exchanges for the month of October. The Pentagon requested Gate’s stopover in Beijing. Did China want Gates to go to Seoul and Tokyo and NOT to Beijing?

No. And, since Gates has made a concerted effort to refrain from harsh rhetoric and improve the mil-mil relationship, accepting the visit was essential.

The second arms sale notification to Congress was after Gates had left. The Chinese lost face and are worried that the approval for the F-16s will be next. So they closed the Hong Kong port to U.S. ship visits for a couple of months to send a strong signal (they did this not only in 1999 and 2001, but also in 2002, when Taiwan’s sec defense Tang Yao-ming visited the US and gave a speech at the US-TW Business Council conference).

I would NOT chalk all this up to bad decision making and coordination mechanisms. The MFA is in the loop on decisions to deny port calls.”

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There you have it. Angered by the US decision to sell upgrades to Taiwan for its missiles, upgrades in the works since 2001, China closed Hong Kong to the US Navy, the one part of the US government that was eager to engage in outreach to China. What kind of signal does that send? You make the call.