Obama’s C-130 / China Move Brings Confusion In Many Quarters
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — A congressional letter sent by U.S. President Barack Obama asking for the release of exports of C-130 aircraft to China during oilspill operations has been hailed by Chinese media, criticized by some U.S. observers and generated confusion over its intent.
Chinese state media outlets are reporting the U.S. is lifting the arms embargo, in place since the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen, as a quid pro quo for restarting military exchanges and inviting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates to China in 2011.
But Michael Hammer, U.S. National Security Council spokesman, said the export of munitions to China will continue to be restricted by law under Section 902 of the 1990-91 Foreign Relations Authorization Act, better known as the “Tiananmen Square sanctions.”
Obama’s Oct. 8 letter states that it is in the national interest of the U.S. “to terminate the suspensions under … the Act with respect to the issuance of temporary munitions export licenses for exports” to China, insofar as such restrictions pertain to the C-130 being “used in oil spill response operations at sea.”
Though the White House can ask the U.S. Congress to waive sanctions for humanitarian and disaster response, there is no evidence China has ever requested foreign assistance on an oil spill, nor does the letter or anyone in the White House identify the alleged foreign companies who requested the waiver.
“The C-130 decision has been misreported and should not be exaggerated,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Critics in Washington are calling any move to tinker with sanctions potentially dangerous, saying it might allow for a greater relaxation and the eventual reversal of the Tiananmen Square sanctions.
“I think this was an ill-considered decision that was probably intended as an inducement to get Beijing to agree to speak to [U.S. Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates and allow Gates to make a visit to China before his term as secretary ends,” said Larry Wortzel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
The news came a few days before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) defense ministers meeting in Hanoi on Oct. 12, where Gates met with his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie. Gates was also invited to visit Beijing in 2011 during the meeting.
Dean Cheng, a China specialist at the Heritage Foundation, said Obama’s announcement was an attempt to “‘show some ankle, in order to tempt the Chinese into greater interaction.” The Chinese unilaterally canceled military exchanges after the U.S. released a $6.4 billion arms deal to Taiwan in January. Beijing later canceled a planned visit by Gates without explanation.
Despite media reports, the U.S. is not selling C-130s to China, Hammer said.
The decision is a “contingency waiver that would allow for the landing and refueling of a C-130 in China in order to respond to an oil spill as necessary — either in China or, more likely, transiting China to another country in Asia.”
Hammer said oil spill response companies maintain reaction capabilities throughout the world.
“C-130s are used because of their maneuverability and transport capacity. Contingency plans in the region may include temporarily landing in China.” The waiver would “promote international cooperation on environmental disaster mitigation efforts,” he said.
China’s Bohai Sea has suffered from numerous oil spills, but China has never sought foreign assistance with an oil spill.
“In the wake of the [July] Dalian oil spill, perhaps the worst in Asia in recent decades, one is hard-pressed to find reports that China had invited foreign experts or teams to help with the clean-up,” Cheng said.
The C-130 release is also a mystery on technical grounds. China has military cargo aircraft capable of responding to oil spills at sea, including the Shaanxi Y-8 cargo aircraft and the new Y-9 multipurpose transport aircraft. The Y-9 is eerily similar to the C-130 in design and capability.
Wortzel said the sale of just one C-130 would be “enough to reverse engineer.” The result would be an improved Y-9 that would eventually compete against the C-130 in the international cargo aircraft market.
Obama’s decision will no doubt increase calls within Europe to overturn similar export restrictions in place since 1989. European defense companies have been pushing hard for the lifting of sanctions.