Lyle Goldstein on U.S. Strategic Challenges: Russia, China, Ukraine, and Taiwan — #19

Lyle Goldstein is Director of Asia Engagement at the Washington think-tank Defense Priorities, which advocates for realism and restraint in U.S.defense policy.

Steve Hsu: Welcome to Manifold. My guest today is Professor Lyle Goldstein. Goldstein recently retired after 20 years of service on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. During his career there, he founded the China Maritime Studies Institute, CMSI, and has been awarded the superior civilian service medal for his achievement.

He has written or edited seven books on Chinese strategy and is at work on a book length project that examines the nature of China Russia relations in the 21st century. He has a longstanding interest in great power politics, military competition, and security in the Pacific and Eurasia region. He's currently director of Asia engagement at the Washington think tank Defense Priorities, which advocates for realism and restraint in U.S. defense policy.

He is also a visiting professor at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Goldstein earned a PhD at Princeton, an MA from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and an AB from Harvard. he is also fluent in both Chinese and Russian. Lyle, it is a pleasure and an honor to have you on my podcast.

Lyle Goldstein: Well, thanks, Steve. I'm really glad to join you for a discussion.

Steve Hsu: Great. I'm really looking forward to it. I always try to start my guests early in their lives. So, I'd like to just talk a little bit about your early life, your childhood, where you grew up, your education. Tell me a little bit about that.

Lyle Goldstein: Mm-hmm. Well, it's nice of you to ask. I think that's, that's, novel and, and I actually think you're, you're onto something, you know, we're all, those are our formative years when we're children. And in my case, It did have a lot to do with my interests in international security. well, for one, I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC and, as, most people know, you know, that's a very cosmopolitan place, and people are very interested in politics, but, but, in my case, I had friends who were literally from all over the world, you know, Korea, Pakistan, you name it.

I had friends from these places and, so, you know, automatically, I guess I was interested in international affairs. but I would also say, one more piece of this, which I think is quite important is that I, you know, I came of age during the height of the cold war. you know, I was, I was, in middle school and high school during the eighties and the eighties was a very scary time, you know, this was the kind of the late cold war, you know, rhetoric about evil empire, the threat of nuclear war.

and like many of my generation, I saw that movie, you know, the day after and had to imagine what, whether life on earth would exist. Certainly, in Washington, I believe that if there was any kind of war with the Soviet Union, that would be the end for me and my family. and you know that as I look back, I'm absolutely sure that had a major impact on, you know, why I decided to go into this field.

Lyle Goldstein: And really, I spent my career trying to prevent wars. And, unfortunately, as they say, business is booming, I have many, you know, there's so many conflicts which are already devastating, but could do, even more damage to the world. So, I'm, I'm doing my best, but I absolutely was, had the experience of growing up in Washington and thinking about these things has, you know, caused me to choose to pursue this career.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, you were, you were probably close to ground zero.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah, it's absolutely right. I mean, my father used to joke with me, because I would, we would talk about it. You know, when you're young, you ask your parents these things. And my father said, you know, if there's a war with the Soviet Union, just bend over, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye. I mean, this was, and you know, he thought it was funny, but as a kid, you know, you, that's a pretty, Scary thing to contemplate. and I thought about it probably more than most, but it, it, you know, unfortunately we seem to be going back to those days and I think, we, we need to be doing more and, responsible people everywhere need to think hard about what they can do to, to prevent us from, from going back to that time.

Steve Hsu: Yeah. You know, I think you and I are probably similar in age. And so, I remember growing up when the cold war was in full swing and being scared about nuclear conflict. And I feel like people our age have a more serious view of what's happening in the world because we came to the brink, we saw what the brink looked like.

And it seems to me that maybe younger people don't have such a vivid feeling that something like that could really happen.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah, it's a great point, Steve. I also have that sense. I mean, of course the generation before ours saw even scarier things, you know, I've often, reflected with colleagues that old, that older generation had seen the Cuban missile crisis. I've done a lot of work on the Cuban missile crisis and my, you know, academic type work I've even, I once interviewed a retired Soviet submarine captain who was in the Caribbean at that time and literally had his hand on a nuclear button, if you can believe it.

And, but that generation before us was, they were kind of steeped on that and fully understood, you know, how dangerous. great power and superpower rivalry can be. And, they had literally looked into the apocalypse. so, I, yeah, our generation got a taste of that. I don't know if we felt it as deeply as our parents, but, but I do, I think you're right that the generations, younger than us, seem to be much more casual about all these threats.

And I wonder if it’s because they haven't seen it up close. I mean maybe we are in Ukraine arguably, but it's you know, I think, you know, we have to be extremely sober and realistic in these, very, in this dangerous world we live in.

Steve Hsu: Yeah. I want to get into that in depth with you. And one of the things that struck me about your work, which I think I was telling you earlier, I've been following. I'm pretty sure at least a decade, maybe 20 years, is that you're always extremely measured and serious in your AEs. And so, I've always admired that.

Let me accelerate you a little bit in your life. Now. I have you down as being more focused on Russian at Harvard and then pivoting to Chinese at prince. So, tell, tell me if I have that right. And maybe elaborate a little bit on.

You do have that right. And it, it, it was a kind of, a very strange, transition to go through. You know, I took a very deep interest in Russian, for a variety of reasons. You know, I was just, they, a lot of us are remembering Mahi, Gobi. These days and his incredible legacy, I just told my son that I happened to have a poster of his Gobi job on my wall when I was in college, you know, because of course he was a great hero.

Lyle Goldstein: And to me, he still is a hero, for, having really almost single handedly ended the cold war. And we, you know, we shouldn't forget that. But so, you know, I was completely fascinated by that whole process, by this, you know, crazy patchwork of countries that resulted, you know, and I definitely, like many people, fell completely in love with Russian literature.

So, in college, so, you know, I aligned myself with Russia for a year after graduation. I explored the whole country, you know, visited many post-Soviet states in central Asia, Eastern Europe, the Baltic so forth, and, you know, was, was really fascinated. But when I went back to graduate school, I. You know, I kept being drawn to international security issues and it became more and more clear to me that China was the main issue.

And not so much Russia, of course. now we're rethinking that these days, but, so I, know, I poked around a little bit, and I had been always fascinated by China and by the Asia Pacific, but I had never, you know, I'd always thought it was sort of, how to put it to a bridge too far.

Lyle Goldstein: But I, you know, some colleagues when I joined the PhD program in Princeton said, Hey, you know, you should go for it. And they explained to me that many graduate students actually start their Chinese late. That it's, it's not that, it's reasonably common. And off I went and studied Chinese very intensively.

And I'm so happy I did because it really, I think helps me to have a better understanding of the world. You know, I'm constantly comparing the two countries, but I'm always looking beyond, you know, I do think it's a bit of a problem in regional studies, you know, where if you only study China, you think about China all the time and nothing else, you, you tend to kind of become one dimensional.

And, so, I believe these kinds of dual interests keep helping me. I would like to learn about other countries as well. I'm, you know, I'm actually studying Korea now and I'm certainly hoping to get to India. I've never been to India, you know, but I'm fascinated by the country, and you know, so many other places around the world.

So, I think we have to have regional specialists who certainly know their country, who know their language, know their history and so forth, but they have to have a wider vision as well. I think that's quite helpful.

Steve Hsu: You know, I think when I first encountered your work somewhere, I read that you could read both Russian and Chinese and my ears just perked up because being Chinese American, I know there's quite a different worldview that, you know, if you're an American studying China, but you don't read Chinese or, you know, have any facility with the language, it's very tough for you to really understand, how they're looking at things. And as a physicist, I had many Russian students. So, although I don't speak Russian, I could understand their difference in perspective. And I think that, you know, your linguistic capabilities and being able to, you know, look at original documents, original materials in those languages is extremely valuable.

Lyle Goldstein: Well, thanks, Steve. Yeah, I really feel strongly that language is so critical to understanding the world. I think, you know, people who only. Who only study English really are. You know, they, they clearly are missing out on a lot of discussion and perspective, and, you know, I'm, so I'm always, that's the first thing I say to young people is get, get some languages under your belt.

you know, it's, it's no exaggeration to say that it opens up an entire new world. and you know, unfortunately, I mean, Google translate is great. I use it every day and it's, it's, it sure is helpful, but, but you really need, To do your studying as well. And don't want to rely on that. And you know, that's not even to say all the cultural connections that come with art and travel and all these other things, but I, you know, I'm always leery of these, beltway, specialists, that's how we would call them in Washington, DC, who, you know, who claim to know the world and yet, don't know any foreign languages haven't spent any significant time abroad, you know? Sure. They've been to London or Paris and so forth, maybe Berlin, but you know, have they really seen the world? I doubt it.

Lyle Goldstein: And, you know, I, myself, am trying to be very humble, you know, and fully aware that there are large parts of the world that I don't understand well, but I'm very eager. You know, I've been to Africa, Latin America a bit. I am very eager to see more and understand more, but you know, it comes from my general belief that we have to, the people. People in these countries understand their situations best. And we need to listen to a whole lot of listening, a little, maybe a little less talking as Americans, and let people find their own ways to, solutions, you know, pragmatic solutions. So, I, you know, I'm always cautioning people to listen to what they have to say and think hard about it. And then, you know, we'll go from there. Or better yet, let's let them figure it out. Those are my kind of default options for solving world problems. You know, because it just stands to reason that people in these areas know, know the problems, and what, what is possible and what is not.

Steve Hsu: You know, to take an example of that. I first traveled to China in the early nineties, and I deliberately went to China, which at that time was nothing. It was, you know, they didn't even have sidewalks. It was all mud and buildings that were shitty buildings that they were putting up really fast. And if you've seen that, then you realize how far the country has come and how, even though the government has all kinds of negative qualities from our perspective, the people there may be very, very grateful to the government for what it's done for them.

In those 30 years. And similarly, I think you said you traveled in Russia after graduating from college. And if you saw the depths of post-Soviet collapse in Russia, you can understand maybe why some Russians are very grateful to Putin for restoring them to some degree to, either economic or economic affluence or great international relations.


Lyle Goldstein: Absolutely. You, you nailed it. Steve, I think in both cases, I mean, that's absolutely critical and I that's one reason I urge, you know, I was just saying this to some people in my office the other day that, that any American doing foreign policy today, should get themselves over to China, have a look around and not just Beijing Shanghai, and just really try to, to get around.

And I agree though, having seen, you know, having, I visited China first in the nineties, so, and yeah, the progress is simply unbelievable. Extraordinary. I mean, that's a cliche already, but it's to be, you know, to see that with your own eyes, is to kind of appreciate, a lot of, extraordinary achievements and yeah, I mean, even in Russia where, you know, today Putin is so, severely demonized and some of it is, is correct, of course, but, you know, in general, Right.

The chaos of the, you know, my encounters with Russia started in, in the late eighties. And then I lived there a bit and I lived and traveled and saw the chaos and the hardship and people were hungry. People were, you know, it was a depression worse than, than our own great depression.

If you can imagine how terrible that was, you know, people's lives completely upended, in, in horrible ways. And you know, anything for Russia and many of the post states was going to be better. And if you could put a modicum of order and get some growth going and a little bit of investment and have a little self-confidence, it was going to be better.

So, Russia in the two thousand, you know, I was shocked at the progress, and this, you know, rising self-confidence and so forth. So, I mean, you know, it's very sad how this all turned out. Of course, it didn't need to be this way in my view. i strongly believe that, but yeah, if you have this, this view, then you realize that it's, you know, this black and white version of the world, is just garbage and you need to dispense of that right away and get a more nuanced appreciation of these different countries.

And, you know, I've also traveled a lot around the United States, and I've seen, you know, a lot of the problems and a lot of the wonderful things about our country. It truly is an amazing country. And I always am amazed just how, how impressive Americans are themselves. But, but, you know, I say that also knowing the darker chapters of our history and that we've got a heck of a lot of work to do at home that has nothing to do with these foreign adventures and so forth.

And I would like to see greater focus on those problems at home.

Steve Hsu: I think it's true that during the post-Soviet collapse briefly, I think Putin was driving a taxi. So, in principle, like maybe if you had been in St. Petersburg, you could have been picked up by Putin himself. Had him drive you across town. So, people should understand how far that country has come, from, from what it was, when you were there.

Lyle Goldstein: That's right. I mean, I, of course, St Petersburg, one of the wealthiest places in Russia, but even St. Petersburg was a disaster. I remember, you know, you could hardly find a bite to eat there and, you know, people were experiencing extreme hardship, you know, even in these cities. So now that has changed considerably, but, yeah, people of Putin's generation of leaders, I mean, they saw it all.

They saw, you know, all the, all the terrible things that, that came with the collapse now of, of course, a lot of good things happen too, you know, and let's, let's be clear about that. and. You know, I think, I think Russia and many of the Soviet states are, undoubtedly , better off for having dispensed with the USSR.

But, but the, the, the overwhelming sense of nostalgia is there. And clearly, it's partly at work in this whole Ukraine, Russia, war that we're witnessing.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, I think, I think that sense of nostalgia is just something. I think a westerner just can't grasp right. That somebody could be nostalgic, kind of forgetting all the worst parts of the USSR but remembering the stability or at least the pre catastrophe, you know, goodness of life.

Lyle Goldstein: Actually, Steve, I would argue some people in our country are nostalgic for that period too, honestly, because, you know,

Steve Hsu: Yeah.

Lyle Goldstein: For many Americans, the enemy was clear. Our national mission was clear and, you know, we, they want to go back almost to that. 1980s, they forget all the horrible things about the, you know, because there were many things that were not right with our country in the seventies and eighties and so forth.

But I mean there are, you know, I think I have worked for the military for 20 years, I could tell you that they had very, you know, Military people, God bless them. And I salute people in uniform and I'm very proud of the time I spent working for the Navy, but they like clarity, you know, clarity of mission.

Right. And so, these great power rivals give a lot more clarity than, than the mess in Iraq or Afghanistan. Right.

Steve Hsu: Absolutely. Let's get into that. I think in just a moment, but let me, before we finish with your education, I just want to ask you a little bit about your dissertation. So, I have it here that your dissertation at Princeton was actually on Chinese nuclear strategy. Any, any remarks you want to give us about that?

Lyle Goldstein: Well, yeah. Well, thanks. Steve, for doing your homework. I, you know, like many people. The dissertation writers. I'm kind of hoping people will forget my dissertation and leave it alone. It was published as a book by Stanford, actually, if anybody's really interested. But I think what I was looking at was, I really was very interested in the process of nuclear proliferation, how countries go from being, you know, not having non-nuclear status to becoming, you know, small nuclear powers to, you know, becoming large nuclear powers.

And I, this process fascinated me and of course, Russia had walked that road, the USSR, and so had China and China's in walking that road has been particularly, let's say, particularly arduous, right. Because a lot of this coincided with a cultural revolution, so forth, so, Hmm. China moved quite slowly to adopt a larger nuclear force.

So anyway, I was very interested in that period of the 1960s with a lot of that instability. And I considered briefly even writing a book about the Russia, China, or, or sinus Soviet conflict, in the, in the late sixties. because I had a lot of good material about that., rather unique material from, in, you know, Chinese and Russian language sources.

I did a lot of interviews and so forth. So, but you know, of course, you know, India went over the threshold of Pakistan. So, that's a lot of interest and of course, you know what to do with North Korea, you know, Iran, Israel, you know, many nuclear proliferators. So, you know, the title of the dissertation sort of valley of vulnerability refers to that sort of early period when a, a nuclear state has just sort of stood up its arsenal, but yet it doesn't have a kind of robust, as we say, second strike arsenal, you know, a survivable deterrent. And I was very concerned about that period. And, you know, this turned out to be quite relevant to what's gone on with North Korea.

And I actually think the New York Times asked me about my dissertation about 10 years ago, they said, Professor Goldstein, you know, should we dig this up and discuss this value vulnerability and so forth. So that was pretty, pretty interesting.

Steve Hsu: I wouldn't poo the relevance of your dissertation work because I think right now, they are potentially expanding the Chinese, maybe to thousand more heads. If they haven't already. and some of the things that you looked at might be quite relevant for what we're about to live through in the next five or 10 years.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah, I agree. I mean, I believe, that China has sort of pulled through this, this valley vulnerability to, to get, you know, if you will, to the promised land, you know, of, kind of a larger nuclear stability, I think they have robust nuclear forces. I think, they are, well, well on their way, you know, to, to a large and secure deterrent by large, I don't mean compared to the us, but you know, large enough, you know?

Certainly, so, you know, to me, it's just kind of the lag here that I think American analysts have been slow to for various reasons. And some of them, I would say maybe even for political reasons, have been reluctant to say that China has a survivable arsenal. I think it does. and this transition probably occurred if you will probably occur in the early two thousand.

and you know, it wasn't much talked about and, you know, for good reason. U.S. China relations were reasonably stable at that time. But yeah, I mean, I guess I don't want to take any credit for this, but I do think, you know, it's conceivable that, that, that people over there were looking at the same, phenomena and saying, we need to move robustly toward, toward a more, larger deterrent.

Lyle Goldstein: My, my observation is the Chinese debate has gone on and on here because they were very proud of their minimal deterrent, you know? And many Americans admired him. Many Americans said, Hey, we need to do what China did not have this enormous force of nuclear weapons.

So, but, but I, you know, of course we continue. I mean, I am worried about the nuclear dimensions of U.S. China relations and the nuclear dimensions of Russia U.S. rivalry. So, I don't want to act like, like, this is, Somehow a settled matter, which is kind of implied by my dissertation, but, but I actually think, and I believe Ted Postol has said this, that, that, that the current situation with Russia is extraordinarily dangerous.

And he said it was more dangerous than the Cuban missile crisis. I'm not sure I agree with that, but he might be right. and that's a scary thing to contemplate, but, you know, by the way, coming up on the big anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis in October, I'm working on some materials related to that, but including how the Chinese view the Cuban missile crisis.

But I also am very worried about the whole North Korea thing. I went down to the China, Russia, and North Korea border, actually, two times during 2017, 2018. Like I said, I've spent my career trying to prevent wars. And I was very, very worried that we might see a war on the Korean peninsula, partly because of this, this instability, that results from this, as I called it, this valley of vulnerability, with North Korea.

Lyle Goldstein: So, you know, fortunately that that crisis passed, and we hope all these crises will pass and that the Ukraine war will end soon. But, you know, I do think there is a, unfortunately there is a new, there are nuclear shadows over a Taiwan crisis, I guess we'll get to that. But, you know, I know you have a physics background and I'm, so I'm glad you're interested in nuclear strategy.

it seems like, so this is a, unfortunately. Now, would've been nice to say, who needs to study nuclear strategy? I mean, that was kind of the attitude when I was doing my dissertation. Not too many people were interested in nuclear strategy and that's a good thing in a way. Right.

Steve Hsu: I think if you're part of, if you're from our generation and you're a physicist, you're extremely interested in nuclear strategy because of what you went through as a kid. And I also, because of star wars, there's another issue, which we'll discuss in a second. I'm very suspicious of people who claim they can shoot down missiles with other missiles.

The record of that, if you, if you really dig into it. And obviously Ted Postol is the world expert on this is, is, is very, suspicious. I think it's much harder than the military claims to shoot down a missile with another missile. But getting back to the, to nuclear strategy, I'm curious if you are familiar with a book called the nuclear Express by Stillman and Reed, which is about proliferation, but it's also, I think at least one of those two actually is a bomb designer from Los Alamos.

And it's about some, I guess they, there was a period of openness where the Chinese would allow experts from Los Alamos to visit and look at their nuclear weapons program. And I think the claim in that book is that those guys could have gone to a thousand more heads some time ago and maybe did, I guess it's a little bit controversial.

Are you familiar with that at all?

Lyle Goldstein: I'm not, actually I, but I wrote it down. I would like to look at it. You know, I think China's nuclear arsenal is really opaque and people don't realize just how opaque it is. I mean that they have never confirmed the number of warheads that they have, which is, if you think about it, kind of extraordinary, especially when you compare it with the kind of detailed, you know, metrics and inspections, so forth that go on with Russia and the US. We hope that we'll continue to go on.

Yeah. I mean, I think it was about a year ago. I think that the reports came out about those large silo fields. what in NCHA and in [unclear], So, yeah, that made a lot of headlines, but I do agree. And maybe with these authors of nuclear expression that it's, it's just a big unknown, we don't know the dimensions of China's nuclear arsenal and, you know, I, you, you always hear people talking with certainty on this, but I think, we had better be humble.

I mean, China is not North Korea. China is a huge country with massive resources, plenty of, you know, plenty of physics talent as you know. And it really is quiet, quite within the realm of possibility that the arsenal is larger than we think. And I also have made this point recently and I'm not trying to generate a big controversy here, but I am very concerned that China probably has, I suspect that they have, at least exploring, the possibility of tactical nuclear weapons.

I don't, you know, of course we have no hard evidence, but I have a lot of soft evidence to suggest that I have piles and piles of Chinese, academic and strategic, analyses looking at the possibility of how these would be employed, why they would be employed. and, you know, I just cited one the other day, which discusses how, that Russia, this is a Chinese paper talking about how Russia is in a much more favorable position, because it has very ample tactical nuclear weapons.

So, I mean, you know, that kind of thing tends to imply that China is, is, working on this. So, I'm very concerned that that might be how a nuclear war over Taiwan begins. Because one side or the other is losing. And I think that's, it's pretty, you know, that's just how war is. and, you know, in desperate circumstances reaches for, for the, you know, nuclear cut.

So, anyway, that's one of several nuclear scenarios I think we have to consider.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, the tactical new question is very interesting because I notice in a lot of their missile systems, including their, some of their shorter-range missiles, they're very careful, well, maybe not careful, but it, it is discussed openly in Chinese media and sources that this missile X is dual, capable. In other words, it could carry a nuclear warhead as well as a conventional one.

And some of these missiles are quite small. So, you would think they would actually probably be tactical warheads that they're putting there. So, I would be surprised if they didn't have them, because of the way they are.

Lyle Goldstein: Right. And we all know that, you know, miniaturization has been a trend in, in high tech for, for decades. and add to that the Chinese are extremely well aware that, you know, probably the, if you will, the most dominant weapon system over the last 30 years has all been based on the American tomahawk.

Right? since the Gulf war, I mean, this is kind of, I mean, we're seeing it all over Ukraine. The Russians are using them like crazy, these [unclear] missiles. And, China has, has, gone in, you know, big time for this, similar capability can field it across its arsenal. You know, they can shoot it from submarines.

They can shoot it from, you know, launchers, land-based launchers, surface ships, aircraft, you name it, can all shoot these, very long range, cruise missiles effectively. And they. The Chinese also know that during the eighties, these were actually, I think at least partly, developed as nuclear delivery systems.

That is, we were going to rain down on the Soviet Union, all, you know, thousands of nuclear armed tomahawks. And, you know, China is well aware of this and well aware of how, how, much this, stirred up the late cold war. And, you know, is, is very likely, I think, to have a kind of what we call it in the Navy, we called it TLA N you know, it's a, it's a land attack, cruise missile with a nuclear warhead. And I strongly suspect China, which I'm absolutely sure has a lot of these Tomahawk- like missiles that could strike even the continental United States. But I fear that. Yes. If not already, very soon, they will have the ability to put a nuclear warhead on those.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, that's my feeling as well. Although no, no one can be sure about any of these things, but I wanted to, before we get, because we're, it's obvious that we, we have a lot of common interest to discuss here, but.

Lyle Goldstein: That's for sure.

Steve Hsu: Before we get into that, I just wanted to go through one more aspect of your career history.

I think I read that you started at the Naval War College right around the time of 9/11. and that must have, so one of the things I observed during that period of time, post 9/11, is that the U.S. kind of totally forgot about great power or pure competition, and was obviously really focused on Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorism and insurgency.

And I think somewhere, I saw a quote from me where you said, you know, you weren't really allowed to think about the stuff you were really interested in for a long time because of the effect of 9/11. So maybe you could just talk about it.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah. I mean, there was an interesting period. you know, I guess I do think about that period with some sadness, you know, because I lived in New York City and, and well, you know, a lot of. Let's say some people I know were touched by the horrible events of 9/11 and I, but I also feel, like many of that generation I saw that is, I guess we, we not only saw the devastation, but then probably saw all kinds of overreactions, looking, looking for terrorists everywhere in the United States.

You know, and, also, I mean, of course some of that was justified clearly, but, then the wars in the middle east, you know, the rush to war, and the horrible hangovers from these endless wars. and I mean, my simple explanation, having been around the military during those periods was, you know, I just think we, we watched 9/11 and our country basically collectively went berserk in, in terms of just hatred and needing to exert our power.

And you know, of course, a lot of that, ended very tragically for a lot of people in Afghanistan, but for a lot of veterans who, who, sent too many times into these war zones and, you know, I don't need to tell this audience that so many mistakes were made. But that often happens, you know, when you make decisions under duress.

Lyle Goldstein: And it's clear to me that our country was making decisions under duress, that's not an excuse, but it's just, we were enraged and made some horrible choices, you know. I'm hoping in the next part of my career that I'll be helping to make, to help our country make better choices. So, and you know, to me, these endless wars kind of help create this idea that we need to reform.

Now, as far as like, there, there, of course, when we had a common enemy of, of, radical terrorists in the middle east, this brought us together to some extent with both Russia and also with China.

I mean, that was a very interesting period. I mean, its people have said it enough times, but I'll just say it again, that Putin was one of the first leaders to call Bush right after 9/11. And I believe, offered all kinds of assistance, including, you know, the possibility of American basing in the post-Soviet space.

And, you know, eventually Russia would even, you know, be helping us move equipment across, across Russia actually, as late as, you know, even I think 10 years ago, but even eight years ago, I think we're still moving equipment across Russia to supply troops in Afghanistan. So, I mean, and Russia's to this day are concerned about the radicalism in central Asia and the middle east too.

Lyle Goldstein: So, you know, it, how to put it, we shouldn't need an enemy just to get along with these countries with either Russia or China, but China also, you know, has had issues with terrorism and, religious radicalism and so forth. So, you know, this was kind of an interesting period.

But, I mean, it's true to some extent that we were not as attentive if you will, too, you know, some kind of the start of, of this great power competition, if you will.

But I, you know, I'm cautious about that myself because, you know, even to this day, I think great power competition is, is really kind of vastly exaggerated as a kind of a frame for understanding the world. You know, clearly things are going, but I agree more or less with Fareed Zakaria, that this is really kind of the rise of the rest. It means like, you know, the U.S. was not going to be this, This, you know, the lone superpower forever. And it was just inevitable that all these other countries would, you know, gradually, develop more military capabilities. So, we shouldn't be so shocked.

But you know, the founding of our institute at Naval War College, this China Maritime Studies Institute, I mean, that was a great moment for me, of course, to lead the effort. I was very honored to do so. And, you know, some people said to me, well, Lyle, you know, we shouldn't focus on China. We want to focus on the whole region. And I said, I said, are you kidding? Like China is so important. It has so much potential. And it's not an easy thing to research, you know, in this country.

So, we need to have this kind of singular research focus on China. Not as an enemy, you know. I always maintained throughout my career at Naval War College and continue to do that. I don't, I don't concur with people who label China as an adversary or an enemy or something like that. You know, competitors are fine, but, you know, Britain and France are also competitors, right?

Lyle Goldstein: But I mean, in other words, all countries compete at some level, not just in the Olympics, but in general. And that's normal and fine. So, one way I pushed back at the Naval War College against this kind of, this, this sort of Sinophobia, which, which was growing in strength and me, I really saw it grow stronger and stronger and stronger till finally I felt, I really had to leave because it was so strong. But I fought back against it by insisting that look, you know, I agree that it's possible we could have a conflict with China. I can't rule it out. So, our military has to be ready for that day if it comes in. I hope it doesn't come, but it could, so we have to prepare for that day. However, and this is a big however that some people prefer not to remember, but I said on the other hand, let's also keep the door open to cooperation and, you know, try very hard to insist that we engage, substantively with Chinese colleagues, very frequently, to try to stabilize the relationship and improve the relationship and continue to believe this day there are just huge areas that the U.S. and China need to cooperate on, including in the maritime domain. But not that not only that, of course, in so many areas, you know, climate change is the most obvious one, but we need to be working with China across the board. And there are even things on the military side that we need to work with China on. For example, China is a very important contributor to global peacekeeping and peacekeeping is not an easy task, you know, and China has troops in harm's way in, like Mali and Lebanon. Sudan. So, they have a lot of experience and we can even learn some things from China in this respect and work with them.

Same is true on the counter-terrorism front and other areas. So, I have always held that up as an important objective, and I try to, tried to be emphatic about that at Naval War College, to take a balanced objective approach to China, which, which I think we held to for a time, but unfortunately, the waves of, of, the waves of anti-China sentiment, became larger and larger and very hard to, to fight against. So, you know, I decided that recently you know, I could do more outside the government, so that's why I decided to leave.

Steve Hsu: Got it. In 2015, you wrote a book called Meeting China Halfway: How to Diffuse the Emerging U.S. China Rivalry. It sounds like you got some pushback from your colleagues at the war college when you wrote that.


Lyle Goldstein: Well, you know, I don't, I don't want to talk too much about internal politics or, you know, inside baseball here. But I would say in general, most people at Naval War College and others I met in the military were, least, open to hearing my perspective and, you know, some would occasionally say, hey, you know, Goldstein, we need you to, kind of play devil's advocate or at least, you know, raise some questions about, a more kind of aggressive pursuit of rivalry with China.

So, you know, so for most of my career, I felt very welcome. But, toward the end, it became clear to me that my ideas were being, you know, consciously suppressed by the college and by the U.S. government. And, so, you know, to make it clear to me that it was time to leave, and I'm very thankful and honored to have worked for the Navy for 20 years. But I think I can now do more, you know, to help U.S. policy by being on the outside.

Steve Hsu: Do you feel like, in the seven years, since that book was published, that we sort of followed the worst-case trajectory that you were worried about in the book?

Lyle Goldstein: Hmm. Well, thanks for looking at it, Steve. In some ways, yes. yeah, in some ways I think my, my predictions are born out. you know, I've always held that, that the human tendency, I think it comes down to not physics but chemistry. I think it's, it's in our brain chemistry to, you know, to be xenophobic, to circle the wagons, to, you know, as humans we survive in tribes. And so, everything becomes about the tribe. We're very tribal. And, you know, that's very powerful, and provides powerful energy for nationalism.

And, so, so the, the natural state of human beings is basically to fight against each other, to circle up in tribes and, and do battle, you know, that's gone on for millennia. So It's not weird what's happening, it's actually natural, but we, you know, conscious, we have to use our reason and, conscious, ability to reason, you know, in the same way that we, can reason out physics and, make these incredible equations and send people to the moon so forth can use the same reason to stop these, what are kind of natural human tendencies toward rivalry and war.

And we have to do this otherwise, you know, literally the future of the planet is at stake and not just from a nuclear weapons point of view, but also from a kind of climate point of view. And as we're seeing Ukraine that even, Even that war, which is non-nuclear, but is, is, the destructiveness of, of conventional weapons these days such that you, you know, are literally seeing whole countries being destroyed.

So, we need to find a better way. And, you know, that means putting ideology aside and seeking pragmatic solutions, and we can do this. We've done it before. You know, if, if people would just look back at our leaders during most of the cold war were very, very careful, and managed the competition and, you know, at various critical points, you know, Berlin crisis, Vietnam cruises, Cuban crises, Middle east crisis, again, and again, chose to de escalate.

And we need to, you know, take that example and, you know, to stop this cold war in the tracks before it becomes a hot war between the great powers.

Steve Hsu: Yeah. So, you mentioned that cold war leaders, you know, tried to keep a lid on things. My read of what happened in Ukraine is that we could have prevented this war. The United States could have prevented this war but did not. I'm curious how you feel about that?

Lyle Goldstein: I feel the same way. I agree with you. It's very, very painful for me, personally, because, you know, I've visited many of these places, my ancestors from way back or come from Kiev and Odessa and places like that and Poland. So, you know, it's, utterly, horrific, catastrophic, you know, I keep telling people like, you know, think of all the orphans, you know, from this war. just reflect, you know, how their lives are changed by all this it's, you know, anyway. but yes, like if we go back to, you know, well we could go back decades, but we could go back just in November 2021 and see, you know, I'm amazed that I haven't seen any journalists go back through, these meetings between Putin and Biden to see, you know, what, what was missed?

Why, where did we go wrong? Why didn't we meet Russia halfway, if you will, if you take the title of my book and I have, by the way, considered writing a book on a meeting, Russia halfway, because something like that is absolutely necessary. Of course, I'm 10 or 20 years too late, you know, I was always against NATO expansion.

I knew from my time there that this was a hot button issue that would drive the Russians crazy. George Kenan had it absolutely. Right in 1999, I believe he said that this would, you know, be the fire that lights Russian nationalism, and you will be back in a cold war very soon. And we, you know, we were, we were back in a cold war, you know, maybe as early as 2008.

And you know, now the cold war threatens well and has gone hot and could get hotter. and it’s, incredibly dangerous and nobody's suffered more than the Ukrainians. But this was all in my view, quite preventable. I think Ukraine could have been a neutral state, wiser leaders should have, should have seen this.

And by the way, some neutral, straight states are incredibly strong, you know, does anybody think Switzerland is a weak state? Absolutely not. So. There's no reason that, you know, Ukraine could have been a very strong, neutral state. And, unfortunately, you know, the leaders in Washington Kiev chose a different course not to absolve Moscow and the Kremlin of plenty of blame. I mean, they clearly are seeing demons. Like I said before, feeling that kind of nostalgia of former times wanting to throw their weight around, exaggerating their own, you know, military prowess, all the above, you know, and doing terrible things. And Russia is suffering horribly. You know, when I talked about those orphans, many of them are on the Russian side of the line, of course, too.

Lyle Goldstein: So, you know, this is a horrible outcome for everybody, and most people understand that. So, we need to get back to diplomacy. And I truly am shocked that our, that the U.S. government is not, I mean, hopefully behind closed doors, they are, you know, talking about diplomatic solutions, but I don't see much evidence of that.

Steve Hsu: The Russians, at least if you take them at face value, say that they're not in contact at all with, Western U.S. diplomats. And so, if it's happening, it's happening, you know, in some very hidden way.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah. I agree. It's so depressing. I completely try not to think about it, but it's yes. I, you know, I do think, you know, the, the people who successfully carried out the cold war I, and successfully kept it from blowing up, you know, the Kennedys, Trumans, Eisenhowers, these incredible leaders, I think they would be horrified to see that we are kind of, you know, just casually watching this horrible war unfold and, you know, playing with nuclear, genie, in very uncertain ways, you know, I'd say nothing of what's going on at this nuclear plant, these kind of crazy episodes.

This is just to me, risk taking, that's almost unimaginable, yeah, all around, but, you know, we need a much more mature leadership that understands the histories and the cultures here and can help to bring about peace again. That's why we need to get back to peace somehow. And it's going to be painful.

Lyle Goldstein: You know, compromise is always exceedingly painful. In the nuclear era, we have to do this, but we should also do this on humanitarian grounds too.

Steve Hsu: So, I know you've had a long interest in Russia, China relations, and I imagine you must have some thoughts about how the Ukraine conflict now is going to affect China, Russia relations for the rest of this century.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah, I've been working on that a lot. And, in theory, I'm writing a book on the subject, but it's, I must say it's coming quite slowly right now. And part of it is, I do think the war has, has, put us in a rather new situation, but more or less, you know, I've argued for years that people are underestimating this relationship that Russia and China are two powers that, see eye to eye much more than, than people realize, that, that people often exaggerate, the kind of cultural divide.

There is a cultural divide, but, you know, it's not as severe as many people realize. And in fact, as Gil Rosman, one of my mentors noted, there's so many things about Russian and Chinese identity and their experience over the last century or two centuries, really, in development as states, both China and Russia, that they really have a lot in common.

And that, is, is a pretty strong foundation for the relationship. Moreover, you know, as I studied the Sino Soviet conflict in the sixties, it became more and more clear to me that a lot of this sort of, developed as a peculiarity of Maoism, and you know, we could talk about Mao for a long time, but, but I do think at some level he just wanted to kind of radically change things up, And, push forward, on this kind of new direction, but, but it was a kind of an anomaly, I would say.

And if you look across the sweep of centuries of Russia, China relations, it's actually these two countries, even with a very long border, they get along pretty amicably. I mean, there have been a couple of episodes, but never has there been any kind of large-scale warfare. So that's pretty, pretty shocking actually, when you look across the sweep of Eurasia in history.

So, anyway, my, my view is that they are, they're getting closer and closer, I think, you know, while, while it's true, the worst, if you will, from the Western point of view, the worst has not ha you know, of course the worst would be if we saw Chinese tanks rolling around in Donbas or something like that, or, or, you know, Chinese, airborne division, you know, ready to, fight in or something. That is not in the cards. I've never been in the cards. I don't, you know, I don't think, I don't think Russia wants that. And China certainly doesn't. So, you know, at some level it, people have pointed out that there are clear limits to this relationship. Yes, that is true. And, but, but I don't think, I don't think Russia wants China, China to be overtly military involved, really, you know, Putin wants, this is his war and he wants to keep it that way.

And nor does China is China looking for a Russian airborne division or two to land in Taiwan. So, but if you look at the relationship as a kind of, holding this kind of strong ballast and, Hmm, giving a lot of moral support and material support. I think maybe some of it is also kind of hidden.

I suspect that there's a lot of things moving that we don't necessarily know about. And, that they certainly benefit from trading ideas and technologies and doctrines so forth on the military side too. We're seeing, think just this week, Vos 22 is going off and that will continue.

So yeah, I see the relationship, strengthening quite a bit. And I mean this in a way also reflects some policy misjudgments in Washington too. I would say because I mean, even a, I think most realists would say, well, the logic of conflict between the U.S. and Russia is such that we probably should try to improve our relationship with China. Right? You don't want to antagonize both of these great powers at once. And yet we haven't seen major improvement in, in, U.S. China relations. So that, I think, is a mistake. I think we could have done more here, but we seem to be almost determined to push the two together. Now again, that makes for convenient policy papers in Washington, you know, the, so the Russia, China slash North Korea, Iran threat, right?

Put it all together and you've got, you know, some nice, budgetary requests there. But, you know, this is no way to, run, run a diplomacy in a very complicated world.

Steve Hsu: I don't know, Lyle, if you ever played, like war games or simulation games when you were growing up. But to me, one of the big consequences of this is that, you know, what would, what was in the past one of China's main vulnerabilities, which is having to import so much of its energy, could be partially solved through a tighter relationship with Russia.

And so, the second order effect of you says there's a Taiwan invasion. The U.S. probably would enact a blockade, energy to China from the middle east. But if they can minimize the impact of that, by being able to rely on Russian energy, that that changes, I think their own risk calculus for the, the sort of medium-term consequences of a Taiwan conflict.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah, I think, you're right on Steve that's exactly. correct. And I think some Chinese strategists have made that calculation. They, you know, I think it's fair to say that China has been hurt a bit by the war. It's made its life more complicated that the whole belt and road faces some headwinds now I think we can say because of the war, a complicated thing. So, this is not, you know, some allied victory for China on the other hand. Yeah. There are some things that China can do. be happy about. And one of them is, as you pointed out, that, as Russia orients, a lot of its trade is toward the east.

Well, this, you know, this really in a way is China's dream that, that Russia, this kind of storehouse of, of natural resource riches, which it really is in every respect. I mean, gas, oil, timber, water, you name it, you know, all the metals and everything else. Even on the agriculture side, I think Russia has been showing more and more promise.

So, you know, all, if all of these, resources are flowing to China, then that, you know, in that this is a win-win as China would say for, for China and Russia, you know, Russia, China has a lot that it can give to Russia, obviously, in terms of, attack and manufacturing prowess. And I think Russians are starting to realize that Russians often were among the more suspicious partakers in the, in the belt and road and so forth, they would tend to be slower than other countries in kind of taking up Chinese offers. Well, those days are over. You know, now, the relationship is tightening and I think we're going to see a lot of synergies here. And, as we put the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, I think you're going to see Russia, China trade, go from, you know, some, whatever, 100, 150 billion, to pick up really quite a lot.

And, you know, for Russia, there can be some benefits. I think Putin and others are seeing that as they pivot to the east, they had already talked about a pivot to the east already a decade ago, but now they can really, now, now the pivot to the east is in earnest, right? Because they have to pivot to the east. They have no partners in the west. And so, this has been a kind of a transformation, even Russians are talking about this being kind of like a cleansing, you know, they cleansed of this kind of worship of Europe that they had for, for decades or centuries even. So that's an interesting phenomenon.

I'm, I'm sure Russia will continue to, you know, it's that double-headed ego looking east and west. So, I don't think that's going away, but at least tentatively, the look east is much, much more, Hmm. Powerful than it used to be.

And yeah, I think China benefits. I mean, just to take your military scenario a little one step further, a scenario I think is kind of realistic is, Russia, you know, Russia, China's in a position now to ask Russia for favors, right? Russia needs all this stuff from China, needs a lot of help during the war and so forth. So, China could easily ask Russia to threaten Japan, and Japan, Russia tensions are growing. And in the, in the week or two before a Taiwan crisis, Beijing could, could ask the Kremlin to put on some kind of, you know, not attack Japan, but, you know, make it look as if Japan is under major threat from Russia or something.

And then that might cause Japan to be much more cautious, in a Taiwan scenario. I think something like that could, unfortunately, be in the cards because as we all know, Japan, you know, whether Japan gets really involved in a Taiwan scenario, that that is a key variable in China's calculus.

Steve Hsu: Yeah. I think that, as you know, there are still territorial disputes over some Northern islands between Russia and Japan and Japan is very, in my analysis, Japan is very vulnerable in these circumstances because I believe 90% of energy in over 50% of their food calories are imported. And once things go hot in the naval arena, how are they going to get that energy in food?

I think the Russians and Chinese could easily cause food and energy prices to skyrocket in Japan because commercial shipping companies want to send their ships through a war zone, especially when you can target those ships with inexpensive missiles from thousands of miles away.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah. I don't think Japan is under major threat here because I think it can, you know, the United States will always move to bail out Japan, I think, and get the ships to Japan that need to go there. But I agree, you know, for the, for the short term and in a crisis, it could, it could be ugly.

I mean, let's not forget, you know, Prime Minister Abe, who tragically was assassinated recently, but he, I disagreed with a lot of his recommendations, and he was a very, he was very hard line on China, unfortunately, which I do think was a big mistake, but he, he was the opposite on Russia. He, you know, for whatever reason he sought again and again, and again, to reach out to Russia. And a lot of people left a lot of Americans wondering what the heck he was doing, but I, myself, thought he was quite wise in that respect because, you're right. That, that, I mean, Japan. You know, Japan is better off if Russia and China are not coupled so closely. And moreover, if Japan, if Russia has a stake in Japan's future, which it did, quite recently, and, you know, closing those doors, between, you know, these tensions in, in Russia, Japan relations could, could impact the whole wider region.

And I think it is a real detriment to Japan. so, you know, I think people in Tokyo need to think very hard about that situation and realize that a kind of multipolarity is probably better for Japan than this tight bipolarity, which we're seeing develop.

Steve Hsu: On this issue of the U.S. Navy being able to keep shipping lanes open, I think the technology's changed a lot since you know what people are normally thinking about World War II. When they think about this and convoys of ships, maybe fighting, you know, U-boats or something. Now, because of ubiquitous satellite coverage, we can track all these commercial ships in real time. So that means we can hit them very easily. They don't have any missile defense. So, I don't see how a determined enemy that wants to just interdict shipping, using missiles, to Japan could easily do it. I think this is a particular technical aspect of warfare that isn't well understood by most analysts right now.

Lyle Goldstein: Mm-hmm I mean, I think you're, you're making a very interesting point and that's a scenario. I haven't thought that much about, you know, that is how supplies get to Japan. I guess my view is like in any kind of scenarios that we're talking about, that China's going to use most of its missiles, right there, right in the war zone, to targeting warships and so forth, and have probably limited ability to really fight it out in mid Pacific, you know, or to the east of Japan, so forth.

So that's why I feel like the U.S. Navy and the Japanese maritime self-defense force would be, adequately be able to get those ships to Japan from the United States and, and,

Steve Hsu: Yeah, it.

Lyle Goldstein: Japan from being in a completely dire state straight, partly knowing that most of the heavy combat would happen to the sort of southwest, you know, in the Taiwan direction or something.

But It's an interesting point. I hadn't really thought through that scenario.

Steve Hsu: If your model of the threat to ships, you know, commercial shipping to Japan is from a submarine attack or close-range ship attack from the U.S. and the Japanese Navy, I think they have the muscle to defeat that. The problem is that unless we go to a level where all satellites are taken out and that, that would create a permanent problem because it would create a layer of debris and the atmosphere that would make all space activities for the rest of, you know, the future of humanity problematic. So, I think that's going to be a big step for people to really start taking out each other's satellites. And if, if you don't take out the other side satellites, we can see these ships in real time, we can hit them in real time. And that, that just has never been the case until, you know, 10 years ago.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah. I mean, I also, I don't think, I don't see China really having a need to cut Japan off like that. Although again, you, you're making some interesting points here and if, if China were to build up its, any ship ballistic missiles. You know, my guess now is they're mostly targeted at aircraft carrier groups, not, you know, at, at say merchant ships and so forth, you know, just in terms of the numbers.

But you're right. I mean, technically they could be, could be done. By the way, you know, mines, sea mines were used extremely effectively against Japan in World War II. So don't, you know, I'm absolutely sure that China has studied that example very well.

So, you know, but this is kind of, how to put it, on China's sort of rungs of escalation. And if Japan is doing things they really don't like, I agree with you that they may pull these levers against Japan, that maybe not everybody has thought it through, including me here. You know, these are interesting points though, Steve.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, I'm curious what you thought of as CSIS war games. I don’t know if you followed these, I don't even know if there's, they might still be ongoing. They were, they were going on for several weeks, I think. analyzing various Taiwan invasion scenarios.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah, I mean, I'm a little leery of saying too much about these because there've been some kind of scattered reports in the press. I think I saw that they were going to report in December, you know, for wider dissemination of something more comprehensive. Well, I mean, my first takeaway though, is that they report, you know, they say that the U.S. would win, but it would be incredibly costly.

I think that I saw numbers, like, you know, as many as 700 us aircraft destroyed to carriers down, you know, sunk 20 surface ships. Well, I mean, at some level, yes, that is the level of destruction I'm talking about, but I, myself, and I haven't generally participated in these games. but I I'm aware, you know, some of have been reported in public and, you know, you can look up a former assistant secretary of state who was, or the secretary of defense, at Rand, I think, David monic talked a lot about these games and said, you know, the U.S. repeatedly loses these games.

So, for, you know, I think somebody at the Pentagon has gotten smart and said, this doesn't look good. We better produce some games that we win. So, I do actually think some of that might be going on here.

But, I mean, you know, just taking on it, its face value, those are huge losses. I mean 700 aircraft, two carriers and 20, surface ships, What could possibly justify that? I don't think Taiwan justifies that. Not nearly, certainly not from a point of view of our national interests or vital national interests. But to me, I must say Steve, that I think that may be optimistic. Like I think it could be much worse than that. I think you may have to double those numbers. And you know, by the way, they didn't talk about any submarine’s loss, but actually submarines would probably be to my estimate, probably be the, a lot of the fighting would be done by us submarines. And I do think we would suffer losses, unfortunately, because China's been working on that problem very, very hard.

I don't know who would win this war. I think it's possible either side would win, quite possible that China would win this war, unfortunately. And, you know, I'm worried about catastrophic losses. And I guess from that CSIS game though, I would call those losses catastrophic. But I, again, I think they could be 2, 3, 4 times worse than that.


Lyle Goldstein: And by way, some of the assumptions that I read in this game were, were not on point. For example, the rendering that I read had us Marines on the ground in Taiwan from day one of the fighting. I don't see that. And I think China would be doing everything it could to make sure that this war starts before any U.S. soldiers or Marines are on the ground in Taiwan.

And to me, everything China has in terms of planning and initiating the war would be aimed at that very fact, because they don't want to fight Americans in Taiwan. They want to separate Taiwan from American assistance and so forth. So, you know, I think so. So, I don't know exactly what the conditions were exactly for the game, but that assumption that there are U.S. troops in Taiwan on day one, I think is very, very problematic. And I suspect some of the other assumptions are too another assumption I would question also if they said, well, no use of nuclear weapons. Well, that's very nice, but we all know that, you know, these are two nuclear powers, and nobody knows what happens when two nuclear powers go at it seriously.

Lyle Goldstein: So, again, that's a huge leap of faith taken in this game, and I think Americans better read this critically for sure.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, it's very, very dangerous. I mean, can you imagine 700 U.S. aircraft and two carrier groups taken out without at least significant risk of escalation to nuclear weapons? It seems very, that seems like a very strong assumption to me.

Lyle Goldstein: I agree. I mean, but this is common. This is quite common with this type of game, from what I could tell. So, I have a report coming out with Defense Priorities I think that will try to establish a more objective, look at, at, the way this would unfold. but, and it's quite a bit darker than the CSIS report.

You know, I, there was a story just in the New York Times today, actually it was in the print version today. It came out, I think, a week ago in electronic version, but it basically said, oh, China does not have the ability to quickly conquer Taiwan. Just said this sort of matter of fact, you know, casually in the, in the second paragraph. I don't agree with that.

Lyle Goldstein: I think China might well have the capability today to conquer Taiwan swiftly as they said in the paper.


I agree with you. I don't think we can know for sure, but I think there's certainly a possibility that that could be the case. But, that's not the conventional wisdom, but I think I must say, I think people are not watching the Chinese military carefully enough, and this is a military that is making very rapid strides, on all fronts, in terms of equipment and doctrinal development. And I think they, you know, I mean, the fact is something the U.S. has lacked, you know, we, we're involved here, there, and everywhere around the world.

There's a kind of lack of focus. They don't, they don't suffer from that problem in China. I mean, they have a, the PLA is more focused on this problem has been for decades, if not half a century or more. And, you know, you can bet that they are solving these problems one by one.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, one aspect of this it's seldom discussed, but it hits kind of close to home for me because my, you know, my, my wife is from Taiwan. I have a lot of relatives in Taiwan, in mainland China as well. But one of the things is that they're sort of determined in Taiwan not to think about this, because the whole thing is unpleasant, and they just want to kick the can down the road.

But you know, a lot of the military in Taiwan are descendants of KMT people. My family are KMT people. And they don’t really want to fight China. They, they view the, a lot of them have the view that the communists have a certain amount of legitimacy for returning Chinese civilization to the world stage.

And I would not be surprised if there's a quick end to this war because the military in Taiwan deposes the civilian government and just surrenders, I would not be surprised if that happens. And I don't think very many analysts would seriously consider that as a possibility.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah, I'm not very expert, you know, I'm not, I, they don't, I don't have a super deep understanding of Taiwan politics, but from what I can gather, I have, I'm quite aware of this phenomenon of which you discuss. And I, you know, just one quick anecdote, when I was at Naval War College, I would often have a Taiwan student in my class.

And I remember very, you know, this stark moment where I invited the Taiwan student to kind of address his peers, you know, who were Americans in the room. And to tell us what his perspective was on the whole, you know, on this developing tension and situation. And he said that he, he, you know, he started out his remarks by saying he is deeply committed to, to, Taiwan’s unification with mainland China.

And he said, he believed very emphatically that Taiwan was part of China. and he actually criticized the current who I think, you know, at that time, I forgot the name of the, how what's that,

Steve Hsu: Oh, sorry.

Lyle Goldstein: I think it was Tian. And he said, you know, he said he regards him as a traitor because he does not share this viewpoint.

And he moreover said that all his colleagues in the Taiwan Navy feel the same way as him. And I remember, you know, the entire class was speechless. Because Americans had never had any exposure to this kind of strain of thinking, in Taiwan, which, as you point out is, is not so strange. I mean, I believe it's probably less now than it was then, but, but I think, yes, I think people in Taiwan are divided, and it's a, it's a very tough subject. And, you know, I think you're exactly right, that it's very hard in this situation for Taiwan, people to think about this in an objective way. And really the default is just a kind of denial. Let's not think about it. And that's what I've understood is sort of how most of the discussion goes. That is a, you know, a non-discussion, which, which is, is very dangerous for the island because they kind of presume, well, let's just trust in Uncle Sam and everything will turn out. Okay. And that, that to me, that's kind of what Kiev did and look, everything's not okay.

Steve Hsu: I would say I've met almost zero Taiwanese who have thought seriously about what this conflict would look like and how Taiwan would defend itself. They really just don't want to think about it. And the story that you gave about the Naval officer from Taiwan rings entirely true to me.

Most of those people think the greens, the pro-independence people in Taiwan are traitors. And, so the mil, I don't think the military really supports the current civilian leadership policies in Taiwan. So, it could be an interesting thing.

Lyle Goldstein: And then of course, these are the very people that, you know, people that were, you know, in theory, that would be asked to sacrifice their lives, you know.

Steve Hsu: Yes.

Lyle Goldstein: So, I mean, yes, I agree that this may turn out very, very differently and, it’s hard to know, you know, a lot of people say, well, this is the ultimate, question is, you know, how hard Taiwan fights for its own, to secure its own independence. And it's kind of unknowable. And, you know, I do think people would admit that in the case of Ukraine, a lot of people were wrong on this. But I don't know.

I don't think China is counting on that. You know, China is expecting a brutal fight and would be a huge destruction. I think that, unfortunately, that's one of their lessons from Ukraine is that, if you fight with one hand one hand behind your back, then you, you open yourself up to defeat. And so, I'm very fearful. And here's, you know, I think I should probably get going, but I think that a lot of people don't realize a lot of Americans don't realize just how wide the scope is for any kind of political negotiations on this issue, for creative compromise. You know, and these are not adequately explored. I mean, you know, this is what academics, think tankers and yeah, even government diplomats should be really focused on because with some creativity we can, we can get around this. I really think we can, both sides just need to be a bit flexible. And, you know, I think cooler heads can prevail and we can be pragmatic.

I mean, after I come back to the equal young jury, you know, one country, two systems, which everybody says is dead, but, you know, please tell me a better way out of this. And, actually that it, it, it is, I know there's a lot of hard feelings coming out of Hong Kong and so forth, but I think we have to realize that that's what we're stuck with. We just, we're going to have to think creatively and try to make that work.

Steve Hsu: Great Lyle. I know you're, you're, we're, heading up against a time deadline. So, I'm going to reluctantly let you go and just tell you, I really enjoyed having this conversation with you. I hope we can maybe do it again sometime in the future.

Lyle Goldstein: Yeah, it was my pleasure, Steve. I think we could have talked for a few more hours, but hopefully we'll do it again sometime. And I really enjoyed this discussion and look forward to talking in the future.

Steve Hsu: Absolutely. We're recording this right on the Friday of labor day weekend, and Lyle's got to go with his family on a wonderful trip. So, I'm going to let him go and sign off. Thanks everyone. And I will put in the show notes links to all kinds of great stuff that Lyle's written over the years. So, thanks a lot for listening.

Creators and Guests

Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University.
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