US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is expected to reiterate to Chinese leaders the US' legal responsibility to sell arms to Taiwan and cite China's missile build-up against Taiwan as the cause of the increased arms sales when he travels to Beijing next week, a senior US defense official said on Friday.
Rumsfeld will travel to China early next week at the beginning of a one week-plus tour of Asia, in his first visit to China since he became Defense Secretary in 2001. While the Pentagon refused to give the dates of the visit until Rumsfeld actually departs, reports from China said the visit would take place from Oct. 18 to Oct. 20.
The visit comes amid rising concern in Washington over China's rapid military buildup and a newly emerging concern over the long-term implications of China's rise as a major military and economic power in East Asia.
It also comes against a background of the continuing dispute between US officials and politicians on the one hand, and Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, on the other, over the lack of legislative action on funding the purchase of some US$10 billion in submarines and weaponry.
"I assume that the issue [of US arms sales to Taiwan] will be raised, because it is always raised [by the Chinese]," the senior US defense department official said in response to a question at a press briefing in Washington in which he announced plans for the Asia trip.
He said he also "assumed" that Rumsfeld would respond that "we have an obligation related to the Taiwan Relations Act and with regard to the defense buildup of Taiwan, or any weapons sales that are pending to the Republic of China, the problem is caused by the Chinese missile buildup, which continues apace, and which we believe is the primary driver for tensions in the Strait and our concerns there."
On the roadblocks in the Legislative Yuan to passage of the arms sales funding, the defense official, who briefed on the condition that he not be named, denied that Washington was trying to "force" Taiwan to fund the sale.
"It isn't our obligation [under the Taiwan Relations Act] to force anything on Taiwan," he said.
The decision is up to the Taiwan people, the official said. "So we are not attempting to interfere, as we are so often accused. We're simply saying that however it is budgeted, this is an issue for the people of Taiwan. If the people of Taiwan decide not to budget for it, then that's their business," he said.
Rumsfeld's trip represents another step in the improvement of US-China military-to-military relationships since all contacts were suspended in the wake of a 2001 incident in which an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft was forced down on Hainan island after a mid-air incident over the South China Sea with a Chinese fighter jet.
In Beijing, Rumsfeld will be seeking additional exchanges, the official briefing said. He said joint military relations are "in pretty good shape" and on a "reasonably inclined trajectory."
But next week's visit could be marred by rising tensions over China's long-term military intentions toward Taiwan and the region.
Tensions between the two increased this summer when the Pentagon released its annual report to Congress on China's military posture and for the first time looked at China's long-term capabilities and the intentions of the Chinese leadership.
The report issued a stinging warning over the threat China could cause as its military modernizes. Rumsfeld repeated that warning in June in a speech in Singapore in which he said that China's military buildup threatened the security balance in the region, posing a risk to Taiwan and US interests.
The report and speech fanned a flurry of comments and writings by academics and other China specialists in Washington about the so-called "strategic distrust" of China's rising strength and political muscle in East Asia over the coming decades.
While the issue is likely to come up next week, "I don't think the secretary will beat that theme to death and emphasize that too much," the official said.
Rumsfeld would raise concerns mainly over the lack of transparency in Chinese military affairs, which stymies Washington in figuring out Beijing's military intentions at a time when China's military capabilities are being augmented quickly, the official added.
In addition to China, Rumsfeld will visit South Korea, Mongolia and Central Asian states before concluding his tour in Europe.
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