Thursday, October 8, 2009

China, U.S. to Discuss Recent Naval Confrontations

Defense News


China, U.S. to Discuss Recent Naval Confrontations

By Wendell Minnick

TAIPEI — China and the United States have agreed to conduct a special session under the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) in July to discuss recent maritime incidents.

The announcement resulted from two days of meetings in Beijing between Michèle Flournoy, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, and Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the Chinese deputy chief of the General Staff.

After an 18-month hiatus, the 10th U.S.-China Defense Consultative Talks restarted June 23-24 in Beijing. The talks tackled topics including Taiwan, North Korea and recent incidents at sea involving the Chinese and U.S. navies.

“This round of talks is important because it will set out the agenda of U.S.-China military exchange over the course of the next year,” said Dennis Wilder, former senior director for East Asian affairs on the U.S. National Security Council, under President George W. Bush.

Wilder said China “unilaterally” canceled the talks after the U.S. re­leased a $6.5 billion arms package to Taiwan last October. The sale included Apache attack helos and Patriot PAC-3 air defense missiles.

Since the suspension of talks, there have been three maritime incidents between China and the United States, involving the American ships Impeccable in March; the Victorious in May; and the John McCain, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, with a Chinese sub June 11.

To complicate the issue, a senior U.S. defense official said that in the Impeccable incident, China did not answer a defense hot line established between the two nations. China also failed to answer the hot line to resolve the 2001 collision of a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries surveillance aircraft with a Chinese J-8 fighter jet near Hainan Island.

China and the United States signed the MMCA in January 1998 as the first military confidence­building measure between the two. Wilder, now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, has concerns over whether the MMCA will be successful.

“I doubt there will be any meeting of the minds on whether the U.S. has the right to continuing its Navy activities in China’s exclusive economic zone [EEZ],” he said.

The Impeccable and Victorious incidents occurred within China’s EEZ, under which Beijing claims the United States has no right to operate military vessels or aircraft.

“At the minimum, it shows that both sides have an incentive to try to resolve the controversies through bilateral talks. If they’re forthright enough, we can expect some positive results,” said Wang Dong, a fellow at Peking University’s Center for International & Strategic Studies in Beijing.

In discussing issues such as North Korea and Taiwan, problems will no doubt continue. Wilder believes the Chinese “will want to test the resolve” of the new Obama administration on arms sales to Taiwan.

The U.S. release of 66 F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan has been on hold since 2006. Sources here and in Washington said the F-16 issue is expected to be resolved within a year. Taiwan also is awaiting the release of Black Hawk utility helicopters, expected to be announced soon.

On North Korea, there are concerns that China will do little or nothing to stem Pyongyang’s nuclear saber rattling.

On June 12, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution allowing for the inspection of North Korean vessels suspected of transporting nuclear, biological or chemical weapons materials. However, the resolution states North Korean ships can deny those inspections.

Even if China does take action under the new resolution, “it does not wish to be seen publicly pressuring the North in conjunction with Washington,” Wilder said.
 Wang also questioned whether China would be enthusiastic in joining a U.S.-led interception of North Korean cargo ships, “given the provocativeness involved in such a procedure.”