There is a growing fear in Washington that China is snubbing US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as a warning to the White House not to sell advanced F-16C/D fighters to Taiwan.
Despite heavy lobbying from the Pentagon and the US Department of State, Beijing has refused to invite Gates to visit during an Asia trip that is now under way.
Gates particularly wanted to call on Beijing this week to discuss the burgeoning crisis with North Korea, which has been accused of sinking a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors.
Senior Pentagon sources said that when Gates left Washington on Wednesday, China was still annoyed at US President Barack Obama administration’s US$6.4 billion arms sales to Taiwan in January.
On Thursday, Gates told US reporters in Singapore he believed it was the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — rather than the Beijing civilian leadership — that was responsible for cooling relations and nixing an invitation for him to visit.
A CNN producer reported after talking with Gates that the secretary had been “dismissive” of Chinese protests regarding sales of US weapons to Taiwan.
“This is not news to the Chinese and the sales under the [former US president George W.] Bush administration and under the Obama administration in both cases were carefully calibrated to keep them on the defensive side,” Gates said.
“It depends on whether the Chinese want to make a big deal out of it or not. But the reality is these arms sales go back to the beginning of the relationship,” he said.
Following US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beijing last month, aides said they expected Gates would be invited.
Earlier this week, Pentagon officials said Beijing gave no reason for not inviting Gates, but they “assumed” it was part of a continuing protest about arms sales to Taiwan.
Since then, US government sources have told the Taipei Times that the Gates snub may not just be a protest about past arms sales, but a warning that relations would deteriorate sharply if the US agreed to sell the 66 F-16C/D fighters that Taipei wants.
American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Chairman Raymond Burghardt, who is currently visiting Taipei, said when asked about the possibility of an F-16 sale that Washington was “considering it carefully.”
After meeting with Burghardt on Thursday, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) told reporters that he got the feeling that Washington was very likely to give a green light to the sale.
Indicating that there could be a split between the PLA and the civilian leadership, Gates said in Singapore: “My opinion is that the PLA is significantly less interested in developing this relationship than the political leadership of the country.”
“I am disappointed only in the sense that I think that a more open dialogue with the Chinese about our military modernization programs, about our strategic view of the world, is a constructive and helpful thing in a relationship between two great nations,” he said.
“It helps to prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings and creates opportunities for cooperation,” he added.
Reuters has reported that some US officials saw the new friction with China as “particularly worrisome given heightened tensions in the region” over North Korea.
ABC News reported on Thursday night in Washington that the US aircraft carrier USS George Washington would participate in a joint naval exercise with South Korea next week in the Yellow Sea — “the same waters west of the Korean Peninsula where North Korea is accused of sinking a South Korean warship” in March.