Sino-U.S. Ties Back on Track, But for How Long?
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — Sino-U.S. military relations appear to be back on track after a Jan. 9-12 visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, but analysts wonder how long the honeymoon will last with the pending U.S. release of a retrofit package for Taiwan’s aging F-16A/B fighter jets.
In meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and the country’s minister of national defense, Gen. Liang Guanglie, Gates encouraged Chinese leaders to participate in a strategic security dialogue that would cover nuclear, missile defense, space and cyber issues.
Gates also visited the Second Artillery Corps, which operates China’s strategic missile arsenal, at the invitation of Gen. Jiang Zhiyuan. Gates reciprocated by inviting Jiang to visit the U.S. Strategic Command.
“There was a discussion of nuclear strategy and their overall approach to conflict,” Gates said during a press conference on Jan. 12. “We talked about their no-first-use policy. We talked about command and control.”
Those hoping China will participate in arms control negotiations, similar to the Russian-U.S. Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, might be disappointed.
“Gates said clearly that we are not seeking to have arms control negotiations with China,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That could come five years down the road, perhaps after another U.S.-Russia cut in forces, but not now.
“In the near term, it is possible that the two sides could, through parallel efforts at transparency, reduce each other’s concerns,” Glaser said.
These efforts could include more information about U.S. missile defense capabilities, while the Chinese could explain what they are doing in their land-based and sea-based nuclear force modernization plans.
Skeptics in the U.S. believe the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was “compelled to participate” in discussions with Gates to “avoid disrupting President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington later this month,” said Andrew Erickson, a China defense specialist at the U.S. Naval War College. “They believe that the PLA’s senior leadership has no intention of actually following through with substantive initiatives” after Hu’s visit.
There are plenty of land mines that could disrupt further engagement. These include territorial disputes over China’s claims in the South China Sea, demands that the U.S. Navy stop survey and intelligence missions in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone, and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Improved relations are “still fragile” due to continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, said Di Dongsheng, general secretary of the Beijing-based Renmin Center for Foreign Strategy Studies at Renmin University. Taiwan’s request for new F-16C/D fighter sales “would inevitably hurt this momentum.
“Therefore, personally, I am not optimistic about what will happen in 2011,” Di said.
The Pentagon is preparing to release price and availability data for a retrofit of Taiwan’s F-16A/B fighters, expected to include new avionics and engines.
The release is expected in “the next few weeks,” and congressional notifications up to a year away, said Rupert Hammond-Chambers, president of the Washington-based U.S.-Taiwan Business Council.
There have been concerns in Taiwan the U.S. will forgo new F-16C/D sales in a further attempt to placate China.
“I’m not optimistic for new F-16s,” said Arthur Ding, a cross-strait military affairs expert at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. The White House is pushing for closer ties with China, and new arms for Taiwan will likely suffer as a consequence, he said.
Dean Cheng, a China defense expert at the Heritage Foundation, said discontinuing arms sales to Taiwan would be “calamitous and ill-considered.” It also could be illegal, he added, as continued support of Taiwan’s defense is guaranteed in the Taiwan Relations Act.
A Taiwan defense official said there are concerns the U.S. will ignore the Act and instead “honor and implement” the 1982 Sino-U.S. Joint Communiqué, which states that the U.S. will not carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan.
J-20 Turns and Burns
Gates’ trip was somewhat upstaged by news that China conducted a flight test of the J-20 Black Eagle, dubbed China’s first fifth-generation stealth fighter jet.
Questions remain over how truly stealthy and advanced the J-20 is, yet its unveiling represents an “important marker in the accelerating development of China’s defense science, technology and innovation capabilities,” said Tai Ming Cheung, author of “Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy.” “It will likely take another five to 10 years before the aircraft is ready for serial production,” he said.
“While the Chinese aviation industry has made some important progress” in composite materials, avionics and sensors, “these technological capabilities and standards remain considerably short of worldclass standards,” Cheung said.
The surprise unveiling of the J-20 forced Gates to question the ability of the U.S. intelligence community to keep track of China’s development of combat aircraft.
The defense secretary told reporters Jan. 8 that China “may be somewhat further ahead in the development of the aircraft than our intelligence had earlier indicated.”