The poor state of Chinese-US military ties were laid bare earlier this month at a leading Asian security conference. In his June 5 speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates expressed annoyance at the refusal of the government in Beijing to allow him to visit the People’s Republic of China during his trip to Asia. He went on to express regret that the United States and China hadn’t managed to establish a ‘sustained and reliable’ defence relationship despite repeated attempts and substantial growth in their economic ties.
Gates argued that military exchanges and other defence ties were essential for avoiding misunderstandings and miscalculations between the two nations, as well as for preserving stability in a tense region. In response, Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, argued in a subsequent forum that continuing US arms sales to Taiwan, congressional restrictions on bilateral military exchanges and regular surveillance operations by US warships and warplanes were the reasons for the lack of progress in Sino-US military relations, which he said exhibited a pattern of ‘development, standstill, another development, another standstill.’ But it’s the arms sales to Taiwan that Ma singled out as the biggest sticking point, stating that ‘US arms sales to Taiwan is not just an ordinary issue.’
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Chinese officials and commentators have repeatedly accused the United States of violating the US-China joint communiqué of August 17, 1982, which established the principles that were supposed to govern US-Taiwan arms sales. The most recent Chinese defence white paper, issued in January 2009, warned the incoming Obama administration that US military sales to Taiwan presented a serious impediment to improved China-US relations and accused Washington of worsening tensions by continuing ‘to sell arms to Taiwan in violation of the principles established in the three Sino-US joint communiqués.’
China has also been willing to act on these complaints, suspending various military visits, exchanges and other defence contacts with the Pentagon in retaliation for major US arms exports to Taiwan, including freezing military cooperation for the remainder of the Bush administration after the White House notified Congress in October 2008 of its plans to sell Taiwan $6.5 billion in defence equipment.
But the US claims that the sales are actually an effort at maintaining stability in the region, with Gates arguing in Singapore that the Obama administration was merely continuing a longstanding policy in the face of China’s ‘accelerating military build-up.’