Gates Hopeful on Trip to China
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Sino-U.S. military relations might be on the mend as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets with China’s minister of national defense, Gen. Liang Guanglie, in Beijing Jan. 9-12.
The year 2010 was a rough one for military relations between China and the U.S. In January, China canceled military-to-military exchanges after the U.S. released a $6.4 billion arms package to Taiwan. Then in March, Chinese officials proclaimed the South China Sea a “core national interest” on par with China’s claims over Taiwan and Tibet.
During a Jan. 6 Pentagon press conference, Gates said he was “eager to explore” ways to “develop and deepen” dialogue on a number of issues of “mutual concern” that included Iran and North Korea.
“We might be able to do more in a military-to-military sense together, as partners,” he said.
Areas of cooperation include training and exercising for humanitarian and disaster relief, and counterpiracy missions.
“There are a variety of areas where actually our interests coincide and where I think we can explore working together as equal partners and develop the relationship further,” Gates said.
There appears to be new openness in China for improved military ties. A well-known Chinese critic of U.S. policy said some goodwill should come out of the meeting.
“I believe his visit to China will help to improve mil-to-mil ties between the two countries,” said Maj. Gen. “Tiger” Zhu Chenghu, directorgeneral of the National Defense University. However, Zhu cautioned, “I do not think that his single visit will solve all the problems; some problems will remain.”
There are “mines still in the road” for better relations, warned Da Wei, deputy director of the Beijing-based China Institutes of Contemporary International Affairs. Though the visit is a sign that military relations are “back on track,” Da asks what will happen after the visit. “I have not seen the signs that these problems can be solved in a short run.”
Obstacles include U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S. military surveillance missions in and near China’s Exclusive Economic Zones, and U.S. concerns about China’s military modernization, said Larry Wortzel, a senior member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Gates most likely will try to shift the discussion away from Taiwan issues and focus on space, cyber, nuclear and missile issues, he said, but China is “likely to refuse to discuss them.” A U.S. analyst close to the Pentagon said Gates has asked for a visit to the Second Artillery Corps, responsible for China’s strategic missile force, but a Pentagon spokesperson denied there was a base visit request.
Despite Gates’ best efforts to build relations with China, the most difficult challenge will be China’s insistence that the U.S. discontinue arms sales to Taiwan.
“It has become so politicized for both the Chinese and Americans,” Da said.
Da could be right. Efforts to improve military-to-military ties with China could easily be derailed by continued arms sales to Taiwan. Gates could face tough questions by Beijing officials over preparations by the Pentagon to release price and availability (P&A) data for a retrofit of Taiwan’s 146 F-16A/B fighters.
The P&A data release is expected in the “next few weeks,” but U.S. congressional notifications could be up to a year away, said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the Washington-based U.S.-Taiwan Business Council. The retrofit is expected to include new avionics and engines.
“The timing of the congressional notification will be somewhat determined by how willing [Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou’s] government is to reverse the significant decline in defense spending and support future programs. This will be an expensive program,” he said. “If Taiwan can put together a program, it should be ready for congressional notification at the end of 2011.”
Continued arms sales to Taiwan will no doubt anger China.
“The old question of military sales to Taiwan” will continue to dominate the dialogue, said Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Center for National Strategy Studies. Zhuang said Gates should do what is necessary to “reassure” Chinese officials the issue will be resolved.
U.S. policy guidelines formulated under the Taiwan Relations Act require the U.S. to continue supporting Taiwan’s defense needs, and recent revelations that China is developing a wide range of new weapons, including an aircraft carrier, the J-20 stealth fighter and the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (dubbed the “aircraft carrier killer”), will make it hard for Washington to justify ending arms sales to Taiwan.
Taiwan’s request for 66 F-16C/D fighters could be buoyed by the pending release of a classified Pentagon report to Congress on Taiwan’s air power capabilities. The report will be released after Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington later this month.
Taiwan’s request for the new fighter jets has been on hold since 2006 due to political pressure from Beijing.
January: U.S. releases a $6.4 billion arms deal to Taiwan. China cancels military-to-military relations.
March: China begins referring to the South China Sea as a “core national interest” on par with China’s claim over Taiwan and Tibet.
June 30-July 5: China’s East Sea Fleet conducts a live-fire naval exercise that includes 12 ships and 10 warplanes in the East China Sea.
July 23: The U.S. and other regional members attending the 17th Association of Southeast Asia Nations Regional Forum in Hanoi browbeat China over its policies in the South China Sea.
July 24-27: China conducts its largest naval exercise to date in the South China Sea.
July 24-27: The U.S. and South Korea conduct a joint naval exercise in the Yellow Sea. After China protests, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington does not enter the Yellow Sea.
Oct. 8: The White House sends a letter to the U.S. Congress to allow for exports of C-130 aircraft to China during oil-spill operations.
Oct. 12: Gates and Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie meet on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers Meeting Plus Eight, or ADMM+8, in Hanoi.
Dec. 10: The U.S. and China hold the 11th round of the U.S.-China Defense Consultative Talks in Washington.