After a break of more than seven months caused by arms sales to Taiwan, the US and China have agreed to reopen military-to-military contacts beginning with talks this month in Hawaii on maritime security.
This almost certainly means that a decision on Taipei’s request to buy 66 advanced F-16 fighter aircraft has been put on long-term hold, because Beijing has made it very clear that the proposed F-16 sale is a “red line” item and that it would be furious if it went ahead.
While senior officials in the administration of US President Barack Obama refused to discuss the sale in light of the reopened military-to-military talks, it is widely believed that China would immediately break them off again if the sale were approved.
After publicly putting the resumption of military contacts near the top of its agenda with China and investing significant diplomatic capital to reinstate them, the Obama administration will be highly reluctant to put the contacts at risk again.
At best, Washington will want to reestablish a strong new foundation for the talks — ensuring that both sides have a lot to lose in ending them — before deciding on the F-16 sale.
By then China may have reduced the huge missile force now targeting Taiwan and the Obama administration may be open to arguments that the F-16s are no longer needed for defensive purposes.
Pentagon spokesman Colonel David Lapan announced the resumption of the military-to-military talks on Wednesday. He said the Hawaii meetings would take place on Oct. 14 and Oct. 15 and that China would send senior defense officials to Washington soon afterwards for talks with their Pentagon counterparts.
China’s delegation to Washington is expected to be led by Deputy Chief of the General Staff General Ma Xiaotian (馬嘯天). It is also expected that Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) will make a state visit to Washington early next year.
An agreement to reopen the military-to-military contacts was reached earlier this week in Beijing by Chinese officials, including Major General Qian Lihua (錢利華), and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Michael Schiffer.
The contacts were broken off by China in January after the US announced plans to sell US$6.4 billion in weapons and military hardware to Taiwan.
“Both sides agreed that dialogue is essential to build mutual trust, and reduce the chances of misunderstanding and miscalculation,” Lapan said.
The dialogue, he said, was essential to developing “a broad, resilient bilateral relationship that is positive in tone, cooperative in nature and comprehensive in scope.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that a senior US defense official said Washington wanted to establish a framework “to help ensure that relations won’t be frozen every time Beijing gets upset at Washington, whether over the next Taiwan arms sale or over tensions in the South China Sea.”
Earlier this week, Texas Congressman Pete Sessions told Capitol Hill: “Taiwan is an important ally and trading partner, and we must continue to support its defense.”
“Taiwan faces a continuous threat from China and must be capable of defending itself in the event of an attack,” Sessions said.