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US arms sales to Taiwan stifle US-China military engagement

To protest the US's arms sales to Taiwan, China halted contact between the two nations' militaries, which has expanded in recent months to include study tours and naval exercises. China also threatened Tuesday to retaliate against US companies involved in the arms sales.

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The public relationship between the Chinese and US military is conducted through a series of joint bodies that meet every six months or so to address issues ranging from strategic global matters to the safety of seamen. Four such meetings have been held over the past 11 months; their future is now uncertain.

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Last June, for example, at a session of defense consultative talks, Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy raised US concerns about the way Chinese vessels had harassed US ships earlier in the year in disputed waters off the Chinese coast. In one incident, a Chinese submarine damaged the underwater sonar array towed by a US destroyer.

The Pentagon has also conducted its relationship with the PLA through visits by senior officers. The second most senior Chinese general, Xu Caihou, visited a number of US bases last October, and the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, was due to visit China later this year until China’s announcement Saturday.

Friction over the years

Congress, however, has placed limits on military contacts with China, banning “any exchange or contact [that] would create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure” of PLA officers to US military assets.

Though Beijing has complained about this constraint, saying it narrows the field for cooperation, Willard told the House Armed Services Committee last month that contacts so far have been too modest to be affected.

“No exchanges today approach the point where the provisions would prohibit the activity,” he said, reiterating what Gates had said earlier.
China has also publicly chafed at reports such as the US National Intelligence Strategy, released last September, that branded Beijing one of the greatest threats to US national interests.

“I don’t think that China has really got anything out of these military contacts” says Professor Yan. “They have not made the Americans think twice about their arms embargo against China, nor about abandoning their military hostility to China, nor about military intelligence gathering along our sea border, nor about arms sales to Taiwan. So what’s the purpose?”

This is not the first time that military-to-military contacts have been suspended. Washington broke them off in 1989, after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and resumed them only in 1993. US arms sales to China, however, were not resumed and an arms embargo remains in force.

China broke off military relations for eight months in 1999 after US planes bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and again in 2008 for five months, when the Bush administration announced an arms sale to Taiwan.

The Chinese move is not expected to change Beijing’s decision, announced last week, to join the international flotilla of naval vessels doing antipirate patrols in the Gulf of Aden – the most concrete example of US-Chinese military cooperation.

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